Capturing West Africa’s elite: the photography of a different era

A new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa, presents over a century of portrait photography in West Africa. Many of these works, which were taken between the 1870s and the 1970s, are being displayed for the first time. There’s a broad selection of images on show, including postcards and original negatives as well as conventional photographs.

The choice of photographers is similarly broad, taking in both amateur and professional photographers who captured life in Senegal, Mali, Gabon and Cameroon, among others. What is interesting about these photographs is that they present us with an image of Africa that is seldom recognized – it is often presumed that photographs of Africa from earlier eras were taken by foreign photographers.

West Africa, where photography arrived in the 1840s, became a booming photography centre on its own terms. In other words, photographic production was not controlled just by foreigners – rather it was adapted by locals to their own traditions and aesthetic preferences.

European and African-American photographers were nonetheless still part of the mix – with photographers from diverse backgrounds establishing studios down the Atlantic coast to cater to a rich local clientele.

“By the 1920s, significant West African urban centers had a deeply rooted photographic culture: photography had dramatically impacted notions of personhood as well as the ways in which those notions were expressed,” the Met said.

“From the 1950s to the 1970s, during the transition from the colonial to independence era, photography became a lucrative and flourishing business beyond the main urban centers,” it added.

West Africa’s lucrative photography business was sustained by a burgeoning middle class, whose tastes were formed by culture that came from far and wide –India, the United States and Europe as well as Africa.

Some of the photographers featured are well-known, others less so. Self-taught Seydou Keïta, born in Bamako in 1921, is remembered for his highly artistic photographs of Malian people between the 1940s and 1960s.

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Photo credit: Seydou Keïta (Malian, 1921/23 – 2001) Reclining Woman, 1950s-1960s Gelatin silver print, 1975. 5 x 7 in (13 x 19 cm) Gift of Susan Mullin Vogel, 2015 ©Keïta/SKPEAC.