“It’s easy to take a photo, but what really made a difference was that I always knew how to find the right position, and I was never wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands … I was capable of making someone look really good.”
Born in 1921 in Bamako, the capital of Mali (then French Sudan), Keïta was a completely self-taught photographer. Initially training as a carpenter’s apprentice, he started taking photos during his early teens after receiving a gift of a Kodak Brownie from his uncle. Some time later, he purchased a large format camera, and in 1948 opened his own studio in Bamako, furnishing it with a regularly updated selection of props to enhance and contextualize the images.
A master of the portrait, Keïta worked economically, primarily using natural light and taking only a single shot per picture, often against a fabric backdrop. His images are understated, yet intimate and engaging as befits photographic portraits, perfectly capturing the young subjects and their sartorial elegance; the women invariably attired in intricately printed dresses, the men usually donned western style suits. The contrasting styles encapsulate the hybridism of Malian culture.
Despite his success, both in Mali and across western Africa, it wasn’t until much later that Keïta achieved recognition further afield; this perhaps due to the tendency of European galleries to underrepresent African artists. The catalyst was the 1992 discovery by André Magnin (the then curator of the Contemporary African Art Collection) of over 10,000 of Keïta’s negatives, from which the pair collaboratively produced modern prints.
International exhibitions followed, including at Ginza Shiseido Art Space in Tokyo, the Helsingin Taidehalli Helsingfors Konsthall in Helsinki, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Paris’ Fondation Cartier in 1994.
The exhibition at Foam consists of both signed modern, and unique vintage prints, and is part of their series of exhibitions on photo studios in recent years; exploring the growing interest, and socio-historical and artistic relevance of, ‘Vernacular photography’.
Seydou Keïta – Bamako Portraits is showing at Foam Amsterdam until June 20 2018
By Josh Bright
All photos courtesy of Seydou Keïta official website www.seydoukeitaphotographer.com © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC