Seydou Keïta

“The Studio of Icons”

© Françoise Huguier/Agence Vu

Seydou Keïta was considered to be the father of African photography. He was certainly worthy of the title. In the Africa of the 1950s and ‘60s, photography was a thriving business rather than an art form. Professional photographers and studios proliferated in their thousands throughout the African continent. Most of these trailblazers rapidly opened a studio, as was the case for Seydou Keïta, who started shooting portraits in Bamako in 1948.

He discovered photography through his uncle, who brought him his first camera back from a trip to Senegal in 1935. It was a Kodak Brownie Flash – the same first camera as another father of another form of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Self-taught, he soon learned how to take portraits and rapidly became highly successful. Very soon, everyone who was anyone in Bamako had their picture taken by him: alone, as a couple, with family or friends in three-quarter or full-length shots. But they were always arranged by Keïta himself, who had a keen eye for elegance even in an era that was far less dominated by images. His historically priceless work was discovered in the 1980s by gallery owner André Magnin, a great specialist of contemporary African art.

“Seydou Keïta liked people”, explains Yves Aupetitallot, curator of the major retrospective that was organised of the artist’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris in summer 2016. “He really set the scene with them to make them as attractive as possible, paying particular attention to the choice of fabric backdrop and helping them to select accessories.” Hats, jewellery, pens, watches, flowers, scooters, cars and even radio sets were used to emphasise his sitters’ personalities. In a few seconds and always in natural light, he managed to bring out the best in his subjects. It all hinged on a look, a gesture, a position: Keïta could capture these subtle, fleeting details with great sophistication. These pictures taken between 1949 and 1962 offer us a brief glimpse of Malian high society at the time. But that is not all. Despite being in black and white and more than 50 years old, every one of these photographs radiates a timeless modernity. This rare quality proves that true talent never ages.

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