Seydou Keïta (born in 1921) was a self-taught portrait photographer from Bamako, Mali. His portraits gained a reputation for excellence throughout West Africa between the1940s and early 1960s. His photos are widely acknowledged not only as a record of Malian society but also as pieces of art.
Keïta developed an interest in photography when his uncle gave him a Kodak Brownie with eight shots of film 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.
His numerous clients were drawn by the quality of his photos and his great sense of aesthetics. Many were young men, dressed in European style clothing. Some customers brought in items they wanted to be photographed with but Keïta also had a choice of European clothing and accessories (watches, pens, radios, scooters), which he put at their disposal in his studio. The women came in flowing robes often covering their legs, only beginning to wear Western outfits in the late 60s.
Seydou Keïta worked primarily with daylight and for economic reasons took only a single shot for each picture.
I learned about Seydou Keïta through my interest in another African photographer Malick Sidibé (I will do a whole post on him tomorrow). It is said that Seydou Keïta was discovered in the West in the 1990s. His first solo exhibition took place in 1994 in Paris at the Fondation Cartier. This was followed by many others exhibits in various museums, galleries and foundations worldwide. He is now universally recognized as the father of African photography and considered one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.
“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.”
Seydou Keïta died November 21, 2001 in Paris, France.