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iwaria_pub History of African Photography

Appearing in Africa in the 19th century through Liberia and Sierra Leone, the advent of photography was the work of Afro-Brazilians.
The main African photographers were crossbreeds with about one African relative. At first, these former slaves or relatives of slaves went from house to house offering their services before opening their studios years later.

Augustus Washington, the American-born son of a former slave, was one of the leading daguerreotypists to settle comfortably in Liberia in 1853. He was followed by other picture takers from the surrounding area.

In fact, before the late 1860s, neighboring Africans opened photography studios in Freetown. The Lisk-Carew brothers and their fellow « les créoles », as they were called, also marked the arrival of photography in Africa.

This rush of pioneers and photographic beginners, made up of relatives of slaves and various mestizos, was followed by that of European foreigners, including explorers, colonial administrators, soldiers and European tourists. They introduced the daguerreotype to Sierra Leone, Togo and Senegal.

From country to country, the beginning of photography varied from year to year in Africa. In Togo, for example, it was around 1914 that photography manifested itself as a vocation, with the installation of the artist photographer Alex Acolatse. He extended his work to neighboring regions such as the Gold Coast and Nigeria. Under the influence of the European model, from Freetown to Luanda via Accra, the act of photographic representation is adopted essentially in the huge African urban and or coastal communities that have long maintained close relations with the outside world.

The rise of African photography

The Gold Coast was the first place in West Africa where photography was introduced around 1880, with the arrival of Gerhardt Ludwig Lutterodt. In spite of himself, Walwin Holm began his photographic activities in Accra around 1883, before leaving for Lagos in 1896.

In Senegal, the beginning of photography was not the work of one main actor, but rather of several actors simultaneously. Thus, after Washington de Monrovée who opened his daguerreotype workshop in 1860, Decampe, Meïssa Gaye, Mix Gueye and later the photographers Bonnevide, Hautefeuille and Hostalier, who will train various African photographers, including Doudou Diop and Adama Sylla, to name a few.

It is towards the beginning of the twentieth century that the main African photographers will assert themselves with a private practice and the creation of photo studios. Initiated to the photographic act by the Europeans for having served in their studios or during their military service, photographers flooded the capitals and large cities of African nations with private studio installations.   

With them, African photography will be reflected and will advance the Africans and their daily lives. This appropriation of the photographic device by Africans would be due to the specific mode of management carried out in the British states, where, contrary to what was happening on the French-speaking side, the English led the locals to appropriate the photographic technique.
Unlike the British states where the photographic act was carried out in advance under the control of the Africans, the French-speaking western provinces experienced problems in improving this vocation.

African realities through photography  

This photography reflecting the African personality has taken off thanks to the efforts of some leaders including the Togolese Philippe David, the South African Frederique Chappuis Santu Mofokeng, the Senegalese Mama Casset, the Ivorian Cornelius Yao Augustt Azaglo, the Ghanaian Philip Kwame Apagya, the Malian Seydou Keïta, the official agencies in Mali (AMAP, ANIM), in Guinea (Sily Photo), in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo Press), in Angola (A Foto) and in Madagascar (ANTA, FTM), or the Nigerian hell of Akinbode Akinbiyi

The images made by these first African photographic artists were offered to meet the needs of vacationers. From then on, the European style kept on giving way to another type of photographic articulation, more focused on bringing to light real everyday factors. The photo was also used to affirm the subject’s membership in a socio-social community and simultaneously provide information about his or her economic well-being.

This is the focus of the study by Santu Mofokeng, a South African scientist who has coordinated the long-term collection of a huge quantity of photographs dating from the early 19th century. These are photos of people of color and women of different social conditions and status. These photos allow us to make the connection between these photos and the racist theories that were beginning to emerge in South African culture.

Photography thus became an advanced method of expression, a method of correspondence, which African photographers used to take a fundamental look at the evolution of African culture. Thus, portraits of political figures, criticism of scourges such as corruption, tyranny, are found in the recent fashion of African photography. This practice of committed photography was initiated by actors such as F. W. H. Arkhurst (circa 1880-1969) born in the Gold Coast and settled in Côte d’Ivoire, Alex Agbaglo Acolatses born in Togo (1880-1975), Dorris Haron Kasco, Houssein Assamo and Abdourahman Issa, from Djibouti) Santu Mofokeng and Guy Tillim (South Africa).

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Premier photographe à la minute congolais à Bena Mulumba, Kasaï, 1939, argentine N&B, 9×14 cm.
Antoine Freitas / Revue Noire

Nowadays, photography is moving towards a different view of Africa. It is from this point of view that was born in 1994, the first Meetings of African Photography in Bamako, under the leadership of Françoise Huguier and Bernard Descamps. Also, the creativity that this country abounds in terms of photography makes this event in 2016 offered a retrospective on the journey of the artist photographer Seydou Keita.

From then on, it is Africa in all its variety and recent history, its social heritage and its cultural practices, which is approached in an exhaustive way. Regardless of the fact that one can in any case recognize three primary kinds of expert photographers who really exist together: studio photographers, itinerant photographers and street photographers.

The pioneers of African photography

Sanlé Sory

Sanlé Sory was a highly regarded photographic artist of his time, seen as one of the greatest of African photography in the 1960s. His worldwide fame earned him exhibitions in museums and galleries in Paris, London and New York. Born in 1943 in the Republic of Upper Volta, this observer of the events that marked the accession to autonomy of African nations deified them through his photographs. He photographed scenes showing the joy of the now autonomous populations, naming ceremonies, weddings, parties and all other happy occasions. Thus, he exhibited the golden age of the old continent at the Galerie de Paris.

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For some time, Sanlé Sory remained in the shadow of the names of African photography, such as the Malians Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. He was a columnist, record cover designer and image taker. In 1965, he set up his own studio in Burkina Faso, where he took identity photographs before moving on to depicting the joy of the population.

To meet the aspirations of his African clientele in search of modernity, the young photographer of the time will enhance by wearing a distinction at the base of his photographs, embellished with ornaments such as semiconductors, bicycles, toys, vases, records, instruments…. Similarly, the high-contrast, medium-sized (6×6) layout of the time, will be somewhat redesigned by Sanlé Sory through close-ups and the plain. Presented as « l’œil de l’Afrique des années 1960 », his work is today a reference in African photography.

Antoine Freitas

Introduced to photography by a missionary in Angola, Antoine Freitas is one of the pioneers of photography in Africa. This Congolese photographer was born in 1919 in Angola and died in 1990 in Kinshasa.

Living in Leopoldville since 1932, he photographed the key events of his time, including Mbutu’s revolution in Zaire and Mohamed Ali’s boxing match in Kinshasa. Traveling the nation as a nomadic photographer from 1935 onward, he captured private portraits and scenes of life that are today’s defining images of his time.

Philippe Koudjina

In the 1960s, at a time when the photographic image was being pursued and imposed, Philippe Koudjina regularly visited the bars, clubs and dancings of the Nigerian capital with his camera. These harvests of the hour of opportunity and satisfaction that freedom brings tell in an exhaustive way, with the help of very contrasting images, the historical background of Niger at the time of independence.

Philippe Koudjina‘s works show a youth of Niamey bursting with life, just like Malick Sidibé in Bamako and Jean Depara in Kinshasa. In 1963, this self-taught photographer bought a second-hand Rolleiflex to pursue his passion for photography.

16c6593_102120562-philippekoudjina-niger-johnnyhallyday-argentic1969-revuenoire-1019x1024 History of African Photography
Bras de fer avec Johnny Hallyday, Niamey, 1969, argentique N&B, 40×30 cm.
Philippe Koudjina / Revue Noire

Born in 1939 in Cotonou, Philippe Ayi Koudjina comes from a noble Mina family of the former Dahomey. Originally from Aného in southern Togo, Philippe communicates in French and German. This trained surveyor settled in Niger where he opened his workshop « Photographie Souvenir » in 1963 and then in 1969 a second workshop at the Grand-Hôtel in Niamey. However, the fall in the cost of uranium, the effect of successive dry seasons and the appearance of novice photographers, sounded the end of the wonderful era of 6×6 black and white photography. 

In 1998, it was presented for a first exhibition « L’Afrique par elle-même » by Revue Noire, presented at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. This exhibition toured the world, passing through Sao Paolo, Cape Town, Bamako, Berlin, London, Washington, New York, Bologna, Tervuren, Porto, which propelled him onto the world stage. His work, having acquired a patrimonial and memorial esteem, participates in the reconstruction of the history of Niger in the era of independence.

Rotimi Fani Kayode

An alumnus of Georgetown University and the Pratt Institute in New York, Rotimi Fani Kayode is an expert in the visual arts. Born into a wealthy Nigerian family, he left his country for England after the 1966 upheaval. A founding member of the Association of Black Photographers in England, Rotimi is distinguished by his African-American background. He collaborates with the Black Audio Film Collective and is an AIDS activist.

Dynamic and focused on the African reason, he has contributed to the advancement of African photography of his time. His stance is manifested in his photographic works as well as in his daily life. Returning to England in 1982, he joined forces with photographer Alex Hirst. Highlighting the African and Nigerian presence through his manifestations, notably the case of « Extase et Spiritualité », Rotimi makes photographs to blend the authentic representation of the world.

It is the analogies between cultures and peoples that he exposes. After only 7 years of innovative movement, he is mowed down by death in 1989 in London.

Daniel Attoumou Amicchia

Introduced to photography by his more experienced brother in the 1920s, Daniel Attoumou Amicchia settled in Grand-Bassam in 1948.

Born in 1908 in Ghana, he had an intimate relationship with the English-speaking community that he photographed. This nomadic artist-photographer used natural light to take pictures of families and different communities. 

After his death in 1994 at the age of 86 from a malignant tumor, which forced him to give up photography, his work and equipment were discarded by his family.

It is thanks to his former collaborator, Joseph Ernest Kouao, a collector, that a few uncommon prints could be saved. Some private collections of families have made it possible to discover his photographs. 

Joseph Moïse Agbodjelou

A native of Porto-Novo and representative of Kodak in Dahomey in the 1950s, Joseph Moïse Agbodjelou was the president of the Association of Professional Photographers of Dahomey. At that time, there were about ten photographers. Weddings, commemorative ceremonies, wakes, political, cultural, strict and other occasions. He never missed an opportunity to deify the occasions through the portraits and environmental scenes he captured. He went from being an itinerant photographer in 1960 to a studio artist in 1965 with the launch of his studio « France Photo ». 

It was in the French army that Joseph Moïse Agbodjelou was introduced to the processes of photography in 1935. Seeing the emergence of photography in Africa, it is in 1994 that Joseph embraced photography and remained so until his death in 1999 in Porto Novo. These almost unsaved works justify the information on the historical context of Benin ex-Dahomey.

Cornelius Yao Augustt Azaglo

Known as a good technician, highly skilled in shooting and staging and then filing his 100,000 or so negatives, mostly portraits, Cornelius Yao Augustt Azaglo settled in Korhogo, in the north of the Ivory Coast around 1955. With the help of his homemade « CAMERA BOX », he took passport photos. In the beginning, the itinerant photographer travels through the cities with his moped and his equipment to photograph the inhabitants.

ba6fe02_8727215-corneliusaugusttazaglo-coteivoire-korhogo-argentic1970-revuenoire-1024x1004 History of African Photography
Homme au goitre, Korhogo, nord de la Côte d’Ivoire, vers 1955, argentique N&B, 120×120 cm.
Cornélus Augustt Azaglo / Revue Noire

But in 1958, he opened his studio with his Rolleiflex 6×6 camera. But the appearance in Africa, around 1980, of the « MINILABS » with main tone, causes a stir in his work because the black and white studios must close and their archives destroyed. Unfortunately, he did not escape the impact of the recent craze. Thus, his Studio du Nord was closed in the 1990s.

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Holding on to his work, he set up a room in his bedroom where he reinstalled his studio, where he remained until his death in 2000. But before that, he participated in the first Rencontres de la Photographie de Bamako in 1994.

Michel Kameni

A self-taught photographer of Cameroonian origin, Michel Kameni served in the French colonial administration as a photographer. This animal breeder was introduced to photography by his uncle.

At the time of independence, Michel Kameni embarked on a career as an itinerant photographer, before setting up his studio in Yaoundé in September 1963. It is there that peasants, travelers, families, lovers and various citizens, discover him for their identity, portrait or souvenir photos with an imaginative and innovative side on the staging of his subjects.

Died in May 2020 in Yaoundé, as a result of a lung infection, these documented photographs are about 130,000 shots and have contributed to remake the advancement and variety of contemporary clothing fashions of Yaoundé.

Michel Kameni‘s work has been the subject of exhibitions in Tel Aviv, Yaoundé and London in 2019 and 2020. This collection includes photographs taken between 1960 and 1980, including photos of scoundrel gatherings, photos for the police, mourning photographs with family members arranged around the deceased, photographs of engagement, albinos, photographs of sartorial imitations a la John Wayne and Zorro seen in movies.

Malick Sidibé

Became a fundamental figure in the field of photography and very appreciated by young people, the artist photographer Malick Sidibé made his first steps in photography with « Gégé la Pellicule ». This former student of the School of Sudanese craftsmen of Bamako, became in 1957, the only journalist of Bamako to cover the official events, the festivals and the local demonstrations. Revealing the promiscuity in the Malian capital amidst the effervescence that accompanied the declaration of independence, Sidibé took a set of images that testify to the socio-social existence of the inhabitants. In 1962, he created the « Studio Malick » in the Bagadadji district of Bamako.

Born in 1935 in Soloba, Malick Sidibé seized the imperative of his country’s childhood in the mid-1960s and imposed his style on the black and white photography of the time.

Recognized for his abilities, the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain will present a monographic exhibition of the Malian artist worldwide in 1995 and another retrospective exhibition, « Mali Twist », to pay tribute to him after his death on April 14, 2016. This exhibition will give a global perspective on the photographs taken by Malick Sidibé throughout his life and will show the ageless giddiness that these chronicles save.

Seydou Keïta

Beginning photography in Bamako in the 1935s with a Kodak Brownie Flash camera, Seydou Keïta opened his studio in 1948.

The inhabitants of Bamako go there alone or in couple, in family, in band or between companions to take photographs. The positive side of the pictures are made from one client to another, the artist takes care to situate himself his clients to obtain the most beautiful image. Concerned about the nature of his photos, Seydou Keïta gives his customers additional clothing conditional to capture them, caps and different embellishments, for example, the radio, the bicycle and surprisingly the vehicle. Remaining in a similar dynamic, he re-establishes the basics of embellishing his shop every three years. Acquiring practical experience in the profession of portraitist, Keita takes pictures with natural light.

After independence, this Malian, born in Bamako in 1921, was recruited as the official artist photographer of the Malian government, and resigned in 1977.

Rediscovered in the 1990s, his work was widely distributed before his death in 2001. Seydou Keïta‘s photographic collections remain a statement to Malian culture from the 1940s to 1963. 

Mama Casset

Born in Saint-Louis in 1908, Mama Casset was introduced to photography at the age of 12 by Frenchman Oscar Lataque. He is hired by the Comptoir Photographique de l’A.O.F., towards the end of his primary education.

Capture-décran-2022-07-05-à-21.36.51 History of African Photography
Mama Casset
Sans titre (deux jeunes filles avec coiffes), Circa 1950
Tirage unique d’époque
13 x 18,2 cm
5 x 7 inches

After enlisting in the French Air Force, Mama Casset took several altitude photographs before opening his private studio « African Photo » in the Medina in Dakar, towards the end of the Second World War.

Struck by a visual impairment in the 1980s, he was forced to stop all activity. A few years later, a fire destroyed his studio and he finally retired in 1992. In spite of everything, his work is today out of the insensitivity.

These ladies who have not remained indifferent to the development of African photography.

Long passed under silence, the support of African women to the development of photography has finally been affirmed. To speak of the emergence of photography in Africa without referring to the importance of the role played by women is an oversight.

Notwithstanding the impact of the interpretation that dominates the effort and value of women, there is historical evidence of the establishment of studios by women in the early days of photography in Africa. This is the case of Carrie Lumpkin in Nigeria. 

Even though some of them, to whom we can refer, did not use the camera, they worked alternatively in the business and in the bloom. It is enough to investigate the creations of contemporary women photographers to understand the leading role they have played in the emergence of African photography.

Names such as Patricia Coffie, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Zanele Muholi, Fatima Tuggar, Fatoumata Diabaté and Ruth Ossai currently resonate in the field of African photography.

While fun, their work is full of ingenuity and shows a variety of structures, content, and perspectives for what is to come.

Custodians of postcards, experts in eccentric and eroticized settings, African women were first used as photographic devices before they gained access to the camera.

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In charge of photography, the ladies delivered images that emphasized dress, hairstyle and non-verbal communication. These pioneering women were able to adapt to the situation beyond all assumptions, although it was not until the 2000s that their efforts were seen in the world of photography and film.

Manipulating a variety of disciplines, African women did not only mark the beginning of photography as photojournalists, narrative film producers, and commercial photo artists. Although it seems difficult to pinpoint the year women entered the world of photography, there is documented information about the personalities of women who used the camera as early as the 1990s. 

Felicia Ewurasi

Born in 1935, Felicia Ewurasi Abban became Ghana’s first female expert photographer at the age of fourteen. She was introduced to photography by her father JE Ansah, before setting up her studio « Mrs. Felicia Abban’s Day and Night Quality Art Studio » in Jamestown, Accra, in 1953.

She was the photographer of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in the 1960s and also worked for the « Ghana Times », the former distribution arm of Nkrumah’s People’s Convention Party.

In her sixty years of photographic vocation, she is known for the nature of her studio performances, her negatives of articles and her trendy style. Stricken with stiffness, Abban had to stop working in 2013. Yet before that, she gained a status as a go-to artist for post-production services rendered.

The one whose work was showcased on the world stage at the Ghana Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, doesn’t have much documentation of her work.

Therese Bella Mbidan

Author, guitarist, model and Cameroon’s first female pilot, Thérèse Bella Mbidan, known as Sita-Bella, is one of the first female directors Africa has known.

She immediately gained worldwide popularity with her 30-minute narrative short film, which was shown in Paris in 1963 under the title « Tam-tam ». This film was made about the National Dance Company of Cameroon during a visit to Paris. In 1969, his film was one of those presented at the primary FESPACO of Burkina-Faso, alongside the creations of figures such as Sembene Ousmane

This chronicler of the independence era is one of the initiators of the French newspaper « La Vie Africaine ». She also contributed to the approach of BBC Africa radio, before becoming a journalist for Voice of America and serving UNESCO.

It was not until 1967 that Sita-Bella returned to Cameroon and joined the Ministry of Information as Deputy Head of Information. This pioneer in a male-dominated sector died at the age of 73 in 2006. Although Sita-Bella felt that film was not a woman’s business, she realized that other women like her competed with men in the field during the 1970s. These included West Indian women and a Senegalese woman named Safi Faye.

Carrie Lumpkin

Having set up her photographic studio on Broad Street in Lagos in 1908, Carrie Lumpkin was the granddaughter of wealthy physician Charles J. Lumpkin, a native of Saros.

It is difficult to say whether this lover of photography took care of the camera herself or whether she made the studio available to photographers. 

In a profession deeply marked by the predominance of men, her activities remain sketchy. In any case, her commitment to the development of African photography is established. For not having been an activist in the Royal Photographic Society, her compatriots imagine that she was inundated by other transoceanic photographic affiliations. Sapara-Johnson, an African woman of Carrie Lumpkin‘s time, joined her society in 1899, but there is no evidence that she was a professional or amateur photographer.

Safi Faye

The first woman from sub-Saharan Africa to coordinate a feature film, Safi Faye gained worldwide recognition with her film « Kaddu Beykat », which earned her a few awards. 

Released in 1975, the film was initially met with strong resistance from Senegalese experts for its humorous portrayal of the country’s provincial agriculture.

It was a meeting with French film producer Jean Rouch, during a visit to the Dakar Black Arts Festival in 1966, that sparked Safi Faye’s enthusiasm for cinema.

He encouraged her to use film as an « outil ethnographique ». Safi Faye took her first steps in film by acting in one of Rouch’s films, which introduced her to filmmaking, especially narrative films. Subsequently, the winner of the FIPRESCI prize and the OCIC prize, has made several narrative films on the socio-cultural realities of Senegal.

Ruth Motau

Born in Soweto in 1968, Ruth Motau was the first woman photographer of color to be recruited by a newspaper around 1994 as part of the fallout from politically sanctioned racial segregation in South Africa. Her photographic work revolves around friendly narratives that reveal the minimization of black populations. His photographic papers also involve « Shebeens » and « L’histoire de Sonnyboy ».

The former Mail and Guardian newspaper intern, where she worked as a photographer and photo editor, learned at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Motau went on to work as a photo editor for other nearby media outlets. These include: The Sowetan and City Press. The quality and impact of his work on South African narrative photography is seen widely and globally.

Ms. Agbokou, Jacqueline Mathey, Miss N’Kegbe, Chantal Lawson, Awa Tounkara, Fanta Régina Nacro…

In Togo, many ladies have distinguished themselves in the photographic act since the 1970s. This is the case of the autonomous chronicler Mrs. Agbokou, but also of Jacqueline Mathey and Chantal Lawson who is among the main Togolese women studio photographers. Ms. Agbokou and Ms. N’kegbe unveiled their work in the 1974 issue of Amina magazine.

Apart from them, we have: the Senegalese photojournalist Awa Tounkara, born in 1949, who worked for « Le Soleil » in 1972 and won the prize for the best female photographer on World Press Day.

Fanta Régina Nacro, recognized by the African Guild of Directors and Producers and the first woman from Burkina Faso to have coordinated a feature film; and many other women who have played an important role, such as Constance Stuart Larrabee and Hélène d’Orléans.

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