Seydou Keïta

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Born c. 1921, Bamako, Mali
Died in 2001, Paris, France

Seydou Keïta is unanimously regarded today as the most famous African studio photographer of the 20th century. Discovered in the West in the early 1990s, his work, composed essentially of black and white portraits made in his studio in Bamako from 1948 to 1962, has since been exhibited in major museums and written about in numerous publications. But before his talent was recognized worldwide, Keïta was initially a “studiotiste” who was very famous in Mali and throughout West Africa, thanks to his understanding of the pose, the quality of his prints and the staging of his portraits, in which the accessories bear witness to the changes in urban Malian society during the process of decolonization with independence on the horizon.

Born around 1921 in Bamako, at the time the capital of French Sudan, one of the French colonies in West Africa, Keïta was the eldest of five children. His ancestors were from the Soundyata Keïta clan, founder of the Mali Empire in the thirteenth century, and the Touré family, one of the three founding families of the city of Bamako.
Keïta did not attend school, but became at the age of seven an apprentice carpenter with his father and uncle, who were both educated.
In 1935, his uncle Tiémoko, who was very fond of Keïta, came back from a trip to Senegal with a Kodak Brownie, a 6x9 “box” camera with film that took 8 pictures. Keïta was immediately fascinated by the device, and convinced his uncle to give it to him. He began photographing his family and the people around him, particularly the apprentices in the carpentry shop. “I was 14, these were my first pictures and it was the most important moment of my life.” His first shots are often clumsy, and even blurred. “When they were developed, the subjects came out as skeletons.” But Keïta was passionate and he persevered. He had his films developed at the Sudanese Photo Hall, the first camera equipment shop in Bamako, opened by a Frenchman, Pierre Garnier, who gave him a few tips on technique.
From 1939, though entirely self-taught, Keïta began working as a professional photographer, on the street or in the homes of clients, while continuing to hold his job as a carpenter. He managed to make a good living with photography, which enabled to provide his family with regular income. Self-taught, therefore, though Keïta did acknowledge having received advice and training from Mountaga Dembele, aka Kouyaté, when it came to developing. This teacher and photographer, a Bamako personality, who joined the colonial infantry and was sent to the front, returned to Bamako to open a studio around 1945, where he would train several indigenous photographers: “(...) when Mountaga saw that I was competent, he left me his lab and every night, I was going to his place in Medina to make his prints in addition to mine. It was obligatory. At that time, I had already taken a lot of photos and I was starting to be known.” Keïta then acquired a camera with a folding view camera , which was easier to handle.
But apart from this technical training, Keïta never had a mentor in photography. He had never seen books about photography or even painting, and the only publication he consulted from time to time was the catalog of the French company Manufrance, in those days illustrated with drawings. Likewise, in the latter part of his life in the late 1990s, when he traveled to numerous exhibitions of his work in Europe and the US, he met leading contemporary photographers, who would occasionally give him their books of photographs. André Magnin found these later in Keïta’s house, their packaging intact. Keïta had never opened them.
Seeing that Keïta was beginning to assert himself as a photographer, his father offered him part of the family property, located in Bamako-Coura, new and lively neighborhood in the western part of the capital. This is where Keïta opened his studio in 1948, near the train station and many other places that attracted crowds, such as the zoo, the Rose market, the Sudan Club, Republic Square and the Cathedral. His former apprentice carpenters were the "beaters" around the station, showing travelers Seydou’s printed “cards”. Also in 1948, Keïta married for the first time. He would go on to have a total of six wives and twenty-one children.

For nearly 15 years, Keïta ran the most famous photo studio in Bamako, thanks to his talent, his mastery of poses, the quality of his prints and a certain business acumen. He sometimes received more than 40 customers a day, more or less well-to-do and sometimes from other West African countries, particularly Senegal. Notables, colonial administration employees, merchants, military officers, teachers, housewives, mothers and youths posed in Western outfits or traditional robes, wearing the various clothes and accessories Keïta made available to them: suits, ties , hats, glasses, watches, radios, Vespas, etc. Women mainly chose traditional costumes that Keïta carefully adjusted, adding pieces of jewelry. Some ladies would bring several ensembles for the same photo shoot. Keïta also used various fabrics for backgrounds, starting with his own bedspread; since he would change it every two to three years, this later enabled him to give his photos an approximate date. And in many of his photographs, often the ones that are the most popular, the play between the patterns of the dresses and the backgrounds creates very graphic compositions. Keïta always preferred natural light, and many of his shoots took place in the courtyard outside his studio. But he also used artificial light, often at night, with curtains as a plain background. From 1949 on, he did most of his portraits using a view camera in the 13x18 format, which he developed from contacts without an enlarger, and with only one shoot per customer. This format was very successful at the time, because it could easily be sent by mail. He filed the negatives carefully, in case customers came back for more prints, and cleaned them once a year. Some customers, however, chose to keep their negatives. During his rare moments of leisure, Keïta liked to go fishing and to the cinema. Keïta always said he lived very well from his photography. He bought himself a Peugeot 203 and a Simca Versailles, two luxury cars at the time in Bamako.

Mali gained its independence in 1960 and elected President Modibo Keïta to head a socialist government. The president was related to the Keïta family, and had come several times to the photographer’s studio to have his portrait done. In 1963, the director of the security services recruited Keïta as official photographer. Keïta had little choice but to accept. Soon after, Keïta stopped working in his studio entirely and spent the next 14 years as a government photographer. He covered formal events, visits by heads of state, etc. while working for the security services. The archives of this period are not accessible, and may have been destroyed.
In 1977, Seydou Keïta retired. He devoted his time to another passion, mechanics: he repaired moped engines and photographic equipment.
We have no further information about Keïta’s life until he was discovered by various Westerners in the early 1990s.
In May 1991, the exhibition “Africa Explores: Twentieth Century African Arts” opened at the Center for African Arts in New York. In this exhibition, which mixed traditional, folk and contemporary African art, the art historian Susan Vogel, curator of the exhibition, presented some contact prints made from negatives she’d brought back from her travels in West Africa in the 1970s. These images included seven photographs by Seydou Keïta, credited to “Anonymous photographer, Bamako”. Jean Pigozzi – collector of contemporary African art, and photographer – visited the exhibition and was struck by the beauty of these photos. He asked André Magnin, the curator of his collection, to track down this photographer. Magnin went to Bamako few months later and met Keïta, who showed him his negatives, mostly well preserved. This launched a long collaboration. Magnin selected 921 negatives, brought them to France and started making prints in 50x60 format. He then showed them to Keïta in Bamako to get his approval and signature. Keïta was thrilled to discover the quality of his photos in large formats, which he had not had the means to produce in his studio.
Sometime before that, during one of her many trips to Africa, the photographer Françoise Huguier also met Keïta in Bamako and discovered his work. With photographer Bernard Descamps, she began to develop a project to promote African photography. Their efforts eventually led in 1994 to the first Rencontres de la Photographie de Bamako, the now famous Bamako photo festival, at which was presented the work of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, among others. Furthering this burgeoning interest in African photography, the Revue Noire, publication dedicated to contemporary African creation, was founded in 1991 in Paris.
In 1994 André Magnin organized the first solo exhibition of Seydou Keïta’s modern 50x60 prints at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, for which the photographer was present. The exhibition met with major success and travelled around the world, to the United States, Great Britain, Finland, Brazil, etc. This exhibition marked the beginning of the global "discovery" of Keïta’s work, and his entry into the history of photography as one of the greatest portraitists of his time. In 1996, André Magnin did some experimental prints in Paris in 120x180 format. Keïta was amazed to “rediscover” his photos: "You can’t imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my pictures look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me.”
In 1997, thanks to the great photography publisher Walter Keller, Magnin published the first monograph dedicated to Keïta’s work with Scalo editions in Zurich; it is today the definitive work. The same year, a number of galleries in Europe were beginning to show and sell the work of Keïta: Agnes B’s Galerie du Jour, Paris; 51 Gallery, Antwerp; DV-Galeria, San Sebastian; Hackelbury Fine Art in London; Brancolini Grimaldi in Italy. A major exhibition was organized at the Gagosian Gallery in NY, with many large format prints. Magnin recalled: “Seydou Keïta made the trip to New York. We were in the heart of Manhattan, there was a big crowd, waiting to get their book signed. The Malian community living in New York came to pay homage, but so did the intellectual Manthia Diawara, accompanied by Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize for Literature, the Malian singer Rokia Traoré, the founder of the Real World Music label Peter Gabriel, founder of Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegun, Walter Keller, of course, the American photographer Roy DeCarava, Nan Goldin, David Hammons, Alfredo Jaar, and naturally Jean Pigozzi. The Maysles brothers, Albert and David, followed Seydou, filming everything, all the way to a big photo store where he was presented with a Hasselblad. The evening of our departure, Keïta told me, very moved, that he could not even have dreamed such unforgettable moments….”
In 1998, the magazine Harper’s Bazaar organized a photo shoot in Bamako with Keïta. In an open-air studio, with colorful African fabrics draped in the background, the photographer carefully adjusted the poses of his models and their dresses, just as he had done in his studio 40 years earlier.
Keïta died three years later in Paris.

A biography by Elisabeth Whitelaw, CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Paris 2015

1. Magnin, André, Youssouf Tata, Seydou Keïta. Zurich. Scalo, 1997
2. Lamunière, Michelle, (ed.) You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Art Museums, 2001.