Visions of Cambodia by...Léon Busy

by Léon Busy

Published: July 15th, 2022

The moment awaited by all Angkor lovers has arrived: Léon Busy's remarkable series of photographs (autochromes) taken in Angkor and Phnom Penh have gone into the public domain, and on July 15, 2022, the Musée départemental Albert Kahn in France has released some 1,360 digitized plates online.

Commissioned by Albert Kahn for the vast photo-and-film survey Archives de la Planète, Léon Busy's photo-reports took place in 1915 and 1921, first during one extended visit to "Indochina", and later when he settled in Hanoi. We can see the technical progress made by the operator in these six years, as well as the constant improvement of autochrome medium in terms of image resolution and color palette stability.

Several of these precious photographs have been previously used and overused for commercial purposes, generally without crediting their author. Some scrupulous researchers, however, purchased the print rights at the Musée Albert Kahn and duly credited the author: this is for instance the case of Julio Jeldres for his book The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. From now on, crediting photographers as online circulation becomes widespread seems more and more important.

You can access Léon Busy Indochina collection at the Albert-Kahn museum here.

Here is our selection of autochromes we picked for their documental interest and because they have been rarely reproduced so far:

Angkor
  1. "Quatre danseuses dans une des quatre cours du préau cruciforme ou bien du troisième niveau" [Four Cambodian dancers in one of the four spaces of the cruciform inner courtyard, or of the third layer]' (MDAK A36027)
  2. "Environs de Siem Reap: Une jeune fille accoudée a une barrière derriere laquelle on apercoit une maison des esprits (autel domestique) [Near Siem Reap, a young girl leaning on a fence, with the domestic altar ('house of spirits') behind] (MDAK A36017).
  3. "Angkor: Des enfants assis aux pieds de fragments de sculptures" [Some children sitting at the foot of broken sculptures] (MDAK A35855).
  4. "Angkor: Les trois niveaux du temple Montagne couronnés de prasat tours sanctuaires vus de l'entrée de la grande chaussée partant de l'Enceinte extérieure" [The three-levelled Mountain-Temple crowned with prasat (sanctuaries-towers) seen from the entrance of the grand pathway connecting to the outer walls] (MDAK A35853).
  5. "Angkor: La pose de la coiffure d'une danseuse lors des préparatifs du ballet" [The setting of a dancer's headdress during the preparations of a ballet dance] (MDAK A36114).
  6. "Angkor: Des statues bouddhiques dans une galerie du troisième niveau"[Buddhist statues in a gallery, third layer] (MDAK A35866).
  7. "Angkor: Trois bonzes pélerins"[Three pilgrim monks] (MDAK A35901).
  8. "Angkor: Un amoncellement de statues au fond d'une galerie du préau cruciforme"[A heaping up of statues at the back of an inner courtyard gallery] (MDAK A35854).
  9. "Angkor: Un porche et des galeries délimitant l'une des quatre cours de la terrasse supérieure" [Porch and galleries bordering one of the four courtyards on the upper terrace] (MDAK A35943)
  10. "Angkor: Un segment de la galerie pourtournante formant la base du temple Montagne, à l'arriere plan le pavillon d'angle nord-ouest" [Part of the circling gallery at base level of the Temple-Mountain, with the northwest angle pavilion in the background] (MDAK A35850).
  11. "Siem Reap: Un fonctionnaire (?) cambodgien et sa famille mêlant les styles de vêtements traditionnels (sampot) et occidentaux¨ [A Cambodian civil servant (?) and family mixing traditional (sampot) and Western garment styles] (MDAK A36131).
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
  • PR1 "Danseuse du ballet royal en costume de nymphe maritime" [Royal Ballet dancer costumed as a sea nymph] (MDAK A36113).
  • PR2 "Intérieur de la salle du Trone" [Inside the Throne Hall] (MDAK A36048).
  • PR3 "Certains édifices du Palais Royal" [Some buildings of the Royal Palace] (MDAK A36021)
  • PR4 "Danseuse du ballet royal en costume de Mchas Khsatrei (princesse de rang moyen)" [Royal Ballet dancer outfitted as Mcha Ksatrey, a middle-ranked princess] (MDAK A36107).
  • PR5 "Danseuse du ballet royal en costume de jeune prince" [Royal Ballet dancer outfitted as a young prince] (MDAK A36108).
  • PR6 "Edifices du Palais royal" [Buildings of the Royal Palace] (MDAK A36060).
  • PR7 "Le batiment de la Salle du trone" [The Throne Hall Building] (MDAK A36149).
  • PR8 "Quatre danseuses du ballet royal en costumes de guerrier ssoldats, avec officiers a droite et a gauche" [Four Royal Ballet female dancers outfitted as warriors, with officers on both side] (MDAK A36123}.
  • PR9 "Peinture murale du Vat Prah Keo (Pagode royale ou Pagode du Bouddha d'émeraude dite pagode d'Argent) ou de la galerie formant cloitre delimitant la cour de la pagode" [Mural at Wat Prah Keo (Royal Pagoda, or Emerald Buddha Pagoda, called Silver Pagoda), or in the cloister-gallery bordering the pagoda courtyard] (MDAK A36072).

About the Photographer

Portrait of Léon   Busy

Léon Busy

Léon Busy (19 Apr. 1874, Paris - 1951, Paris) was a French photographer and curator who edited and participated to numerous photo collections about colonial Indochina, Angkor and Southeast Asian daily life.

Initially a soldier (graduated from the prestigious Polytechnique school) with the French colonial troops from 1895 to 1920, he contributed to various colonial Exhibitions in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. He came back to Indochina en 1921 to picture Angkor and Cambodia for the vast photo-and-film collection "Archives de la planète" set up by banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn. Kahn encouraged him in using the autochrome camera developed by the Lumière Brothers, which he had discovered during a 1909 screening by French photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont.

From 1926 to May 1931, Busy led the Photography Department of the Office indochinois de tourisme et de propagande, taking photos, working in close collaboration with Vietnamese photographers such as Ngoc Chan, Nguyen Huy Ky, and Dao Van Than, and gathering rich collections for touristic and documentary publications.

In July 2022, the Albert-Kahn Museum released online some 1,360 photos taken by Léon Busy in Indochina from 1914 to 1921, as the deadline to transfer these documents to Public Domain was reached.

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Apsara Dancers in Angkor, a famous photography by Léon Busy (1918 or 1921)

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Hai-rau rice farmers, by Léon Busy (1922)

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A dancer getting her mokot (tiara) before a performance in Angkor Wat, 1921 (amongst the photographs released online in July 2022). Collection Musée Albert Kahn, France.