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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Early Histories of Photography in West Africa (1860–1910)

Unlike any other medium, photography was appropriated across the world almost simultaneously. Only ten months after François Arago officially announced the inve­­ntion of photography at the French Chamber of Deputies in 1839, the first daguerreotypes had arrived in the African continent as French and Swiss artists began documenting Egypt’s wondrous monuments with their cameras. In West Africa, explorers and government officials such as the French Louis Bouët and Jules Itier were among the first to employ this technology as they traveled along the Atlantic coast in the early 1840s. Yet, if the invention of photography coincided with the consolidation of colonial empires in the region, this medium was not the monopoly of Europeans.

African patrons and entrepreneurs quickly picked up the new technology, which circulated and flourished through local and global networks of exchange. Photographers, clients, and images moved across the region often traversing both national and ethnic boundaries. The first studios were in fact often temporary ones, established by professional photographers who worked itinerantly, moving from one urban center to the next. That was the case for the African American Augustus Washington (1820–1875), who, disillusioned with America’s treatment of its black citizens, relocated to the West African nation of Liberia, where he opened the first studio in the capital of Monrovia in 1853. Through his advertisements placed in local newspapers, we can follow his journey as he visited the main African capitals along the Atlantic coast. In 1860, he arrived in Senegal, where he opened the earliest documented studio in the country. By the 1870s, a number of photographers, such as the Sierra Leonean Francis W. Joaque (ca. 1845–1900) and the Gambian John Parkes Decker, had taken up this activity, working for both European and African clienteles.

George Lutterodt (1850/55–ca. 1904) was one of these pioneers who, in 1876, opened a business with his son Albert in Accra, present-day Ghana. In one of the earliest portraits in the Met collection, dated to the early 1880s (1999.184.1), Lutterodt carefully orchestrates the mise-en-scène to render the refinement and eminence of the central sitter. In his traveling practice, Lutterodt not only served his cosmopolitan patrons, but also worked with and trained local apprentices. One of them, Alex Agbaglo Acolatse (1880–1975), established his own business around 1900 in neighboring Togo. Like the Lutterodts, he specialized in portraits of the upper class and documented the social and political life of the then-German colony. In one portrait (2015.499.24.1), he captures two male sitters who, as in Acolatse’s self-portrait (2015.499.32), pose in black suits. With their hands either in their pockets or resting on the waist, they stand in front of a backdrop depicting aristocratic interiors that identify them as members of the Togolese elite.

By the early 1900s, most West African capitals had permanent studios. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, Alphonso Lisk-Carew (1887–1969) opened a studio with his brother Arthur between 1903 and 1905. Serving a broad clientele, they produced a wide array of images, including formal portraits, event photography, and images from the interior of the country, many of which circulated in the form of postcards. In one example (VRA.PC.AF.02), the caption introduces the sitters as “Bundoo girls,” or members of a pan-ethnic women’s association also known as Sande. Here, the young women pose in a symmetrical arrangement in front of a painted backdrop with tall trees, lavish curtains, and decadent architectural details. The sitters’ matching attire foregrounds their kinship and rich cultural heritage, which Lisk-Carew portrays with dignity.

As the Lisk-Carews’ activity suggests, between 1900 and the 1920s postcards had become a popular commodity, with which African (VRA.PC.AF.01), European, and South Asian (VRA.PC.AF.07) photographers experimented. François-Edmond Fortier (1862–1928) is regarded as one of the most prolific European photographers who worked across French West Africa between 1900 and 1912. He is mostly known for his large collection of postcards, which he continued to reprint and reissue into the early 1920s. Featuring an abundance of ethnographic scenes (VRA.PC.AF.017) and constructed types, his works spoke to the Western desire for the exotic and the “Other.” As such, they remained popular among Europeans living in the colony and in the metropole. Among his collectors was Pablo Picasso, who owned several of his postcards and used them as inspiration for some of his sketches. While most were designed to appeal to the foreign community, Fortier occasionally produced portraits of African upper-class sitters, at least one of which circulated in the form of a cabinet print (VRA.2014.8.039).

Recent research has complicated the proposed scenario according to which all portraits circulating in postcard or cabinet print form were ethnographic in scope exclusively for foreign consumption (VRA.2014.8.024; VRA.PC.AF.012). There is evidence that photographers often reprinted and distributed portraits originally commissioned by private clients in commercial formats such as postcards, with or without the patrons’ consent. In one image attributed to the French photographer Louis Hostalier, two women are posed symmetrically with a young boy standing behind them (VRA.PC.AF.04). The sitters are labeled on the postcard as “Wives of a Wolof merchant”; their hands, decorated with henna, rest on their knees. The precious stitch-resist indigo-dyed cloths (2016.724) wrapped around their waists allow us to identify them as refined and wealthy inhabitants of Saint-Louis, the historical capital of Senegal. The collision between personal portrait—the single photograph—and public commodity—the postcard—may come as a surprise. Yet, practices of reproduction have been central to the history of photography since its inception across the world. As a commercial activity, photographic studios sought strategies to maximize their income by selling commissioned works not only to the original patron, but to a wider audience. In studying these early practices, it is essential to account for the ambiguity of these portraits, whose meaning often changed according to the context in which they circulated.

While more research needs to be done on the first decades of photography in West Africa, these early works attest to its popularity, especially the genre of portraiture. Building on local traditions of art making such as sculpture, the new medium both overlapped with well-rooted practices of portraiture and introduced new aesthetics and ideas. Close analysis of the composition, types of props, and choice of poses reveals localized codes and formal vocabularies. In this experimentation with new technologies, clients alongside photographers were active agents in the creation of their likeness. Through the itinerancy of these entrepreneurs, clients, and images, photography inserted Africans into a global visual economy, as consumers, producers, and patrons.