Photo: Seydou Keïta, Sans titre, 1949, Tirage argentique moderne, 50 x 60 cm, Paris, Fondation Cartier.
Seydou Keïta, one of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century, was born in Bamako, Mali, in 1921. He did not attend school and at the age of seven became an apprentice carpenter to his father and uncle who, in 1935, gave him his first camera, a little Kodak Brownie.
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By 1939 he was already making a living as a self-taught photographer, and in 1948, opened his studio on the family plot in a bustling district of Bamako, not far from the station. Keïta recalls, “…my father gave me the land with the house behind the main prison. And that’s where I opened my studio. It’s a place where no one wanted to live because of the ‘spirits’ that threw stones in the night. Even today if you sleep in that house and you turn off the light a great gleaming white horse spirit might appear.”
Keïta flourished as a portrait photographer. He specialized in individual and group portraits, which he produced mainly as 13×18 format black and white contact prints made from negatives, which Keïta produced himself. At the request of wealthy clients, he occasionally produced 30×40 prints. More rarely still, he would colourize accessories, particularly jewelry.
Keita, who maintained a preference for natural light, provided his subjects with an array of European clothing and accessories including watches, pens, radios, scooters, and other toys with which to play. Women preferred to come in flowing robes covering their legs and their throats, only beginning to wear Western outfits in the late 1960s, following independence from France.
For economic reasons, Keïta only took a single shot for each picture. This practicality drove the quality of his work through the roof. His precision was impeccable, as each photograph shows. As he reveals, “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 never was wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands… I was capable of making someone look really good. The photos were always very good. That’s why I always say that it’s a real art.”
In celebration, the Grand Palais Paris, presents Seydou Keïta, now through July 11, 2016. The exhibition features almost 300 photographs, including modern b&w prints, 50×60 and 120×180 formats signed by Keïta, as well as some unique vintage prints, reminding us once again why Seydou Keïta is a master of the form.
Keïta is best known for his work from the 1940s through early ‘60s, documenting the decades leading up to Malian independence. His work reveals the coming of a modern and urbane society, which came at a crossroads in history. On September 22,1960, the Sudanese Republic declared independence and Modibo Keïta became the first president of the Republic of Mali, establishing a socialist regime. In 1962, at the request of the authorities, Seydou Keïta closed his studio and became the official government photographer until his retirement in 1977. He died in Paris in 2001.
Seydou Keïta is a fitting tribute to the master, who understood, “When you’re a photographer, you always have to come up with ideas to please the customer. My experience taught me the positions that my customers liked best. You try to obtain the best pose, the most advantageous profile, because photography is an art, everything should be as close to perfection as possible.”
All photos: © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.