A selection of rare photobooks by Irène Attinger
MARCH 29, 2016 - FRANCE , WRITTEN BY IRÈNE ATTINGER
Now available for browsing at the library of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP): Irene Attinger’s selection of rare, or practically unobtainable, photobooks. Capturing the zeitgeist of their time, each book bears witness to the international memory of photography publishing .
In homage to the Senegalese portrait photographer, Oumar Ly, who passed away on Monday, February 29th, I am featuring his book and those by two other Mali photographers who have inspired him: Seydou Keïta, subject of an exhibition at the Grand Palais opening March 31, and Malick Sidibé.
Texts by André Magnin and Youssouf Tata Cissé
Scalo Verlag, Zürich (CH), 1997
After beginning his career as a photographer in 1935, Seydou Keïta opened a studio in Bamako, Mali, in 1948, specializing in portrait photography. He worked in black and white, using natural light. Very quickly he enjoyed enormous success. In his studio, people would pose alone, as couples, as a group, with friends, almost always posed by Keita himself
SEYDOU KEITA. Edited by Andre Magnin . Scalo: 286 pp.,
March 29, 1998|BASIL DAVIDSON | Basil Davidson is the author of more than 20 books on Africa and the slave trade, including, most recently, "The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State."
Every now and then there comes out of Africa a book that tells about something really new. Not very often, as we know, because books about Africa seem all too easily to sink into a rut of repeating what we have known already. But here is one that leaps out of that dismal fate and, again remarkably, does this not in words but in photographs. Again remarkably, these are not photographs of astonishing animals and weird scenarios but of everyday people in their Sunday best and strongly determined to look like it. For the maker of these photographs, splendidly reproduced here and more than 200 in number, is a professional photographer whose portraits are of men and women in moments of personal or family celebration. Nothing could be less exciting or attractive? Yet Seydou Keita's work remains memorable.
Probably it is only in America that Keita's achievement could be received with the admiration it deserves. This may sound ungenerous in the context of this album, for we owe its notable assembly of photographs largely to Andre Magnin, a curator of the Paris Collection of Contemporary African Art. Yet Seydou's principles and practice take you back to the unsurpassed skills and vision of Paul Strand and his circle of American photographers who first placed their work on a level needing no apologies for claims to artistic greatness. That is high praise for a practically unknown African artist. But it seems to me in no way excessive, and it can be no surprise that Keita's work should have been exhibited at the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian. These portraits are carefully posed, just as I well recall Strand's from my years of working with him, but the camera, an unwieldy box-like affair (as it was in Keita's case and often in Strand's), never comes between you and the people photographed. It is a kind of magic and rare.
If Keita is entirely unexpected in his work and its distinction, so is the rest of the story from which he has emerged. To begin with, the now sorely impoverished capital of Bamako in the republic of Mali is not at all the kind of place that could be expected to produce him. Although a fairly ancient trading city on the banks of the immense river Niger, where it flows out of remote savannas and embarks on its long journey to the ocean, Bamako has nothing that can offer fame and beauty: nothing to compare with the haunting attraction of the much older city of Jenne with its crumbling walls and tales of long ago or the crowding river traffic of Mopti with its 50-foot river boats run by Bozo mariners who have long equipped their craft with powerful outboard engines and yet still retain the call and rumor of old Mali of the Middle Ages.
Yet Bamako, even with its somehow-housed population pushing now to the million mark and long submerged in urban squalor, is nonetheless a place to visit for those who want to experience Africa "beyond the tourist veil." I first went there as long ago as 1952 to meet the leaders of a then-rising movement of West African anticolonial nationalism, a quest regarded by colonial authorities (French, in this case) as a wickedly subversive thing to want to do. But luck favored me, and I had time before being hustled out of the territory to find the men I went to see, notably the future republican president, Mamadou Konate. With more time I could surely have met Seydou the Photographer, for we read in his book that he had just opened a studio that same year--1952--on a piece of land in Bamako given him by his father. The place he chose for his studio was "just beside the main prison" and thus exactly where you would have expected to find it in colonial times, prisons then being leading venues of popular if involuntary resort.
Besides, Keita had other reasons for this choice of residence. It was a place, he tells us, "where no one wanted to live because of its disadvantage of housing spirits that threw stones in the night. Even today, if you sleep in that house and turn off the light, a great gleaming white horse might appear: You can often hear him galloping by or see him shining in the night." The trick for dealing with this boisterous phantom was to keep the light on, and then "you never had problems." All of which helps to confirm that Keita was and remains a true son of ancestral Mali who, as Youssef Tata Cisse explains in a useful sketch in this book about offbeat Mali, "knows that one should always respect the improbable, if people believe in it."
For Mali is rich in echoes of an improbable past, and Keita himself is not for nothing a distant descendant of the numerous Keita lineage whose founding ancestor was the great and unforgotten Sundiata, victor in about AD 1250 of the famous battle fought at Kirina, a place that has long since disappeared from the map but was situated, in good ancestral memory, near the modern village of Kulikoro. That was when Sundiata called upon his spirit guardians to overthrow the magic of the feared and formidable Sumanguru and managed to prevail even though his own warriors had fled in terror. Whereupon, say the memories, Sumanguru was struck with an arrow bearing the spur of a white cock fatal to his magical power, and Sundiata became the master of the new empire of Mali.
Being aware of such "improbabilities" that people believe in, Seydou the Photographer remains bone and sinew of the people that he portrays, but at the same time success in showing and selling his work has added new dimensions. His portraits have become well known and enjoy many visitors. He stays faithful to his calling and his skills. His task is to portray Mali in the dimensions of its memories and traditions. "What I would like to do now," he has told Magnin, "is to take pictures of our rural people during harvest time, and the ritual ceremonies that go about then. That is where the essence of Mali comes out." Welcoming his book, one can greatly believe that he will carry out this wish. For we can see now that the magic of his traditions is also the magic of a humanism capable of reminding a skeptical world that today's perverse caricature, truly a neocolonial artifact, of what Africa has been is only the product of latter-day dereliction and despair. Let us hope that the glowing horse-spirit, the djinne so, will be galloping again.
Text by André Magnin
Scalo Verlag, Zürich (CH), 1998
Malick Sidibé was born in 1935 to a Peul family in Soloba, a small village in Mali. Distinguished for his talents in drawing, he was admitted to the School of Sudanese Craftsmen in Bamako, where he graduated in 1955. He cut his teeth in photography as an apprentice to Gérard Guillat, nicknamed “Gégé la Pellicule.” In 1958, he opened Studio Malick in the Bagadadji district in the center of Bamako. Studio Malick became a popular hangout among young people. Malick Sidibé attended all the parties where the youth would discover dances freshly imported from Europe or Cuba, wear Western clothes, and outdo one another in elegance. In 1957, Sidibé was the only reporter in Bamako to cover all the events, celebrations, and surprise parties. On Saturdays, people would party until dawn and continue the next day on the banks of the Niger River. Sidibé’s intimate reports yielded simple, candid images revealing evidence of a bond between the photographer and his subject.
Oumar LY Portraits de brousse
Text by Frédérique Chapuis
Filigranes, Trézélan (F), 2009
Born in Podor, a village located on banks of the Senegal River, near the border with Mauritania, Oumar Ly entered the world of photography in 1963 when he opened the Thiofy studio.
The administration of the newly independent Senegal hired him to crisscross the bush in the company of a census officer, taking portraits of the citizens, which he would reduce on his enlarger to the size of simple ID photos. Today, there remain only a few thousand of those photographs taken with his Rolleiflex either in his studio or in the bush. Like Malien Malick Sidibé, he immortalized the local populations of his native town and the Senegal River valley in their diversity and their modernity. Next to kaftan-clad nobles, he photographed young pop stars and fashionable girls. Oumar Ly agreed to this publication even though, for him, the only real image is the one that emerged under the light of his enlarger, the one he handed to his client—an image that, since then, has faded in sunlight or grown musty in winter. Images are but reflections of light consumed by time—the right images, simply perfect and free.
Oumar Ly: Photographer whose archive commemorates timeless rural life of West Africa
'Oumar Ly is a very important person for Senegal'
CHRIS SALEWICZ Sunday 20 March 20160 comments
Ly with one of his first cameras and some of his work, at a festival in Dakar in 2010.
The dusty old French fort in Podor in northern Senegal is now a ramshackle museum. Lining some walls are pictures by Oumar Ly, who has become recognised as one of the great West African photographers; his black and white portraits, an archive of more than 5,000 images, commemorate a timeless rural existence.
Some of these images are of a teenage Baaba Maal, the great Senegalese musician, another native of Podor, a small river border-town that faces Mauritania. “Oumar Ly is the person who documented daily life in this part of Senegal in the second half of the last century,” Maal told me. “When he took those early pictures of me he gave me a lot of confidence. I love the simple forms in which he works: they say everything about the truth of life in the Sahel.”
The son of a shop-owning marabout, the future photographer was sent for seven years to the local Koranic school. This brief formal education was largely unsuccessful, and he emerged essentially illiterate.
It was outside Podor’s French fort that the seeds of Ly’s future art were sewn. By his early teens he was selling vegetables there. After a picture was taken of him conducting his business, he discovered a fascination with photography. Saving up, he bought a Kodak Brownie camera, sending his films off for development. While carrying out his national service in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, Ly discovered the existence of photographic studios. He also found a mentor in Demba Assane Sy, a pioneer of photography in West Africa, who offered him innumerable tips
Returning in 1963 to Podor at the age of 20 he opened his Thiofy studio, in a small street off the market area. By no means all his photographs were taken there: he would often travel into the local bush. On such forays – in the manner of Seydou Keita, the great Malian photographer – Ly would employ cloth backdrops. A feature of his always uncropped pictures, as comprehensively illustrated in his Belgian-published book Oumar Ly: Portraits de Brousse, Podor 1963-1978, was the additional shots he would take of his subjects in front of such backdrops, ones in which the natural environment would also be revealed: a celebrated postcard shows the image of a seated woman as her husband, whose rear head is evident, holds against his own back the cloth in front of which she sits.
The consistent financial staple of Oumar Ly’s work was the production in his studio of portraits for identity cards. Evincing his sense of humour, these would be taken against painted canvases of a departing Boeing 747; the plane’s arrival in Mecca; and a palm-fringed beach.
Following the publication in Belgium in 2009 of Portraits de Brousse, recognition came to the photographer. The next year Ly was featured in Brighton’s Photo Biennial; and there were further exhibitions in Dakar, Bamako, Paris and Lyons. Last November he was a jury member at the documentary film festival in Saint-Louis, Senegal’s second city. “Oumar Ly is a very important person for Senegal,” said Baaba Maal.
Oumar Ly, photographer: born Podor, Senegal 1943; died Podor 29 February 2016.