Over 70,000 Incredible, century-old Color Photos Have Just Hit the Public Domain

Taj Mahal, early 20th century

For creatives of all stripes, the recent release of 25,000 color photos of early-20th-century life and more than 34,000 other old photos could be good news.

The Albert Kahn departmental museum in France released both massive photo sets to the public domain as part of its effort to make sure that the modern world’s visual history doesn’t get lost in a legal quagmire of copyright laws.

The giant collection has been named “Archives of the Planet” and can trace its founding roots all the way back to 1908 when a French banker named Albert Kahn decided to photograph human life from all over the world.

His effort at achieving this involved hiring a dozen professional photographers and sending them out into the field on a global scale. These professionals ended up traveling to 50 different countries over the next 21 years.

Roman ruins World War I Le Somme

Pyramids of Giza and Sphinx

Kahn’s own dram for this enormous project was that his endeavor turns into “a sort of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe, occupied and fitted out by man, as it appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.”

His photographers persisted in this dream until 1931, when Kahn’s own fortune was destroyed by the Great Depression, thus curtailing his monumental (for the time) photographic project.

The total body of work captured by these 12 photographers amounted to 72,000 photos of people, places, historical scenes, important historical places and impressive historical events across some of the most important years of the early 20’th century.

Many of their photos captured scenes from historical events as important as World War I, the Turkish War of Independence and numerous other major contexts of history.

The Albert Kahn museum has been managing this enormous collection since 1990 but previously offered only low-resolution preview shots of many of the photos on its previously rather cumbersome website interface.

This has changed. Historical researchers, investigators, artists and anyone who’s curious can now download over 80% of the collection in full resolution with all of its color and other details through the museum’s new image portal.

The Brooklyn bridge

These newly digitized high-quality photos even include many details about how each photo was created, by whom, when and where.

Essentially, over a century later, the original dream of spreading his photographic inventory far and wide is finally being realized in a way that he couldn’t have imagined in his time.

You should really have a look at the archive for yourself. At the very least, it’s a fascinating look into the past.

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Shotkit Journalist, Writer & Reviewer

Stephan Jukic is a technology and photography journalist and experimental photographer who spends his time living in both Canada and Mexico. He loves cross-cultural street photo exploration and creating fine art photo compositions.

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