Seydou Keita; Self-Taught Photographer Known Throughout Africa for Thousands of Portraits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seydou Keita, an internationally known master of the photographic portrait and one of Africa's leading artists, has died. He was 78, or perhaps 81.

Keita died Nov. 22 in a Paris hospital while being treated for cancer, according to a spokesman for the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City. Funeral services are planned for Saturday in Bamako, Mali.

Known throughout Africa, Keita's work came to the attention of Western audiences in the latter stages of his life.

"As the cultural interest in photography has changed over the last decade, Keita has emerged as a recognized master," said Stephen White, a photographic collector and cultural historian based in Los Angeles.

Starting with a primitive Kodak camera, the self-trained Keita took tens of thousands of photographs of the people of Mali who made the pilgrimage to his studio in Bamako.

Using bedsheets and other readily available cloth as backdrops, Keita posed his customers using a variety of costumes, accessories and props, including his own car, three Vespa scooters and a radio. Some clients brought their own props, such as the woman holding her sewing machine in one of his more noted photos.

Although formally posed, the portraits are neither pretentious nor contrived.

"His work has a dignity that comes through in the people," White said. "Many of them basically had no money and neither did he, and he created this beautiful tableau out of nothing. The complex culture of the region comes through in his work."

Born in Bamako in the early 1920s (in separate interviews he said he was born in 1920 and 1923), Keita was one of five children. Trained as a furniture maker and woodworker by an uncle, he developed an interest in photography at an early age after the uncle gave him a simple German-made Kodak Brownie camera.

He photographed his family to start, and began making commercial portraits in the late 1930s while maintaining his woodworking business. His early reception was not always positive.

"I was already known as a cabinet maker," Keita told Andre Magnin in an interview for a book of his photographs titled "Seydou Keita." ". . . When people saw me with a camera around my neck, they asked me to take a photo of them. That's how I began."

But because of his lack of training, the pictures didn't always work.

"People weren't always pleased when I showed them the results," Keita told Magnin. "Because I had already [spent their] money, there was no way to reimburse them. That's when things got rough and everyone wanted to beat me up."

Over the years, Keita perfected his craft with help from other photographers. In 1948, he set up his portrait studio in Bamako. To drum up business, he sent his two apprentices to the local train station to meet arriving passengers. Of course, they took along samples of Keita's work.

"All the elite in Bamako came to be photographed by me: government workers, shop owners, politicians," Keita told Magnin. "Everyone passed through my studio at one time or another. Some days, especially Saturdays, there were hundreds of people."

The process was relatively simple. Tacked to the wall of his studio were pictures of previous clients in a wide array of poses. A client would point to the one he liked and Keita would set the stage, provide the costume and take the photograph. The process took as little as 10 minutes.

"To have your picture taken was a very important event," Keita told Magnin. "The person had to be made to look his or her best. Often they became serious, and I think they were also intimidated by the camera. It was a new sensation for them. I always told them to relax more: 'OK, look over here, try to smile a little, not too much.' In the end, they liked it."

In later years, European and American museums seemed to like it too.

His work was included in shows in France, and in the United States at the Guggenheim and Smithsonian museums and at venues such as the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. The Kelly gallery, which announced his death, will open a long-planned exhibition of his work Dec. 8.

The critical response, too, was generally favorable.

"In none of his photographs . . . is there a hint of the nonconsensual, that hallmark of so much of the intrusive photography that Africa has had to suffer," a critic for the British newspaper the Independent wrote in a 1999 review.

From 1948 to 1964, Keita developed a reputation as a studio photographer who lovingly and meticulously created and preserved thousands of exceptional photos.

Keita was forced to limit his private work after being named Mali's official government photographer in 1963. But the new assignment did provide new challenges.

"Every so often I had to go up country to take photos for identification cards. . . . Out in the country, as soon as I took out my camera, everyone ran or turned away. It was believed to be very dangerous to have your photo taken because your soul was taken away, and you could die.

"Even in the city, some older people believed the same thing. Some people thought that the photographer could see them naked through the camera. I had to make them come to my studio, and once they looked through the lens, they were reassured."

He retired from government service in 1977. In his later years, he was content to spend his time worshiping at a mosque, working as a mechanic and tending to homes he had built over the years.

A French concern that represented Keita's worldwide work has set up a foundation in Bamako to study, preserve and promote the images.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

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