Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Seydou Keïta

Today is my birthday so I thought I would share a photographer from the African continent.

Keïta was born in 1921 in Bamako, Mali, although the exact date is unknown. He was the oldest in a family of five children. Keïta developed an interest in photography when his uncle gave him a Kodak Brownie with a film with eight shots in 1935, after returning from a trip to Senegal.

In the beginning Keïta worked as both a carpenter and photographer, taking first portraits of his family and friends, later of people in the neighborhood. He learned photography and how to develop from Pierre Garnier, a French photographic supply store owner, and from Mountaga Traoré, his mentor. In 1948 he set up his first studio in the family house in Bamako-Koura behind the main prison.

Untitled 1952/1955  20 x 24 in

Untitled 1952/1955  19 x 23 in

Untitled 1956/1957  23 x 19 in

Seydou Keita is one of Mali, and indeed Africa’s famed photographer whose unique approach and works rightly immortalise. Widely known for his portraits of families which struck the world as great fine art and establish him in Mali and beyond, Keita lived a story that tells that of the possibilities in talent and passion, and inspired many.

His interest in photography was kindled sometimes in 1935, with some accounting attributing that to the gifting of a camera brought from Senegal to him by his uncle, Tièmòkò, also a furniture maker like his father. His fascination with his new possession with which he first began to photograph his family, friends, and people from the neighbourhood with soon got recognised. 

Untitled 1952/1953  20 x 24 in

Untitled 1952/1955  23 x 19 in

Untitled 1952/1955  20 x 24 in

Keita spent time with Pierre Garnier, who owns photographic supply shop, and entered into mentorship relationship with Mountaga Traoré. He realised there was greater potentials in his photography than furniture, and soon tilted towards the former, opening his own studio in 1948, using his family house.

Keïta’s presence in photography in Mali melted the longstanding reluctance of Africans to get photographed due to fear of losing their identity; the whites had had problems convincing them to take photos. But with Keïta, it was different; he was one of them, apart from also having the skills to pull off the best shots – a single shot.

He often took single shots, for economic reasons, women admiring themselves in European wears which were beginning to gain popularity among the Malians. He himself would later comment that he naturally knew the best posture at a sight. He provided the props, although some clients brought theirs.

Untitled 1952/1955  23 x 19 in

Untitled 1958/1960  23 x 19 in

Untitled 1952/1955  23 x 19 in

Seydou Keïta’s popularity in Mali and beyond inspired his designation as the official photographer of the Republic of Mali, a duty for which he resigned his studio works in 1963. He however kept both passion and records – black-and-white images he had taken. He continued in government service until 1977 when he retired. By then, his fame was firmly established. 

His art- in photographs – entered Europe and America in the 1990s following rediscovery by Contemporary African Art Collection’s André Magnin. The portraits circulated exhibition shows in U.S and Paris; a book of those photographs was compiled and published in 1977. In 2001, the same year he died in Paris, a foundation named after him was founded in Bamako, his home city, to his memory and to inspire next generation African Artists. 

In his lifetime, Keïta’s featured in solo exhibitions as the 2001 Flash Afrique in Germany; he also featured in group exhibitions as 1996: African Photographers, Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA4. Seydou Keita is no doubt truly one of Africa’s great, and rightly, he is regarded as father of African Photography 2. His fame came from his unlearnt ability to make the perfect portrait, and this brought him to national and international history. Keïta has featured in many exhibitions, and his art remains in use today for tourist entertainment and to inspire younger photographers. 

Keïta died in 2001 in Paris.

Untitled 1952/1955  23 x 19 in

Untitled 1952/1955  20 x 24 in

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