The photographic studio: a social testing-ground

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« These days we readily forget that human beings are the primary media (…), that is, people among people, intermediaries. People inform other people of something they were themselves informed of « . Peter Sloterdijk (1999, pp. 35-36)

The  » discovery  » of African photography, or its development as an object of study and its recognition as a work of art, is a new phenomenon. It was in the early 90s that a handful of experts and researchers – of mostly European or American origin – began, rather unsystematically and in an atmosphere of intense rivalry, to take an interest in this terra incognita of African culture, focussing on a unique type of photography characterised by the specificity of production and consumption (they are produced by Africans for Africans) and the nature of the subject most commonly used – the human being. Despite the fact that we still have much to learn about the history of African photography, and although, in all evidence, it would be more appropriate to talk about  » photographies  » in the plural because the situation in each country is so very diverse, we can assert that photography was quickly appropriated by the elite before progressively reaching the rest of the population, following its introduction into West Africa shortly after its invention was announced in 1839. (Werner & Nimis, 1998).
Therefore, the appearance, in the 1950s, of photographic studios run by African photographers for an African clientele was a crucial step in the process since the studio was the principal means for the photographees to appropriate the photographic image. In order to understand what happened in these studios from the fifties to the eighties, during which the popularity of studio photography flourished and waned in West Africa, we will look at their spatial organisation, taking Cronélius Augustt’s photographic studio in Korhogo [Côte d’Ivoire] as an example.
Studio du Nord
Born in 1924 in Kpalémé (Togo) and of Ghanean nationality, Cornélius Augustt tried his hand at several different crafts before immigrating in 1950 to Bobo-Dioulasso (now Burkina Faso) where he worked for several years as an accounting clerk in a commercial company. At the same time, he studied photography with two compatriotes – a street photographer who taught him to use a box camera, and another photographer who introduced him to studio work. When he had completed his training, he left his job and started working as a street photographer using a box camera in Korhogo, a little town in the north of Côte d’Ivoire. This turned out to be so profitable that in three years he managed to save enough to buy a Rolleiflex medium format camera and enlarger and open Korhogo’s first photographic workshop, the Studio du Nord, in July of 1958.  » I bought a house », he says.  » There were two bedrooms and a living room. In the living room, I made a plywood wall to divide it in two. In the back I have my enalarger and I bath the photos. I shoot the photos out front ».
The backdrop and decor were reduced to a minimum. There was a pale grey curtain in the background, hiding the plywood wall and there was tiled linoleum on the floor. The only available accessoies were a chair and a few bunches of artificial flowers. As for the lighting, this consisted in a few rows of naked lightbulbs, which had the unpleasant side effect of pushing the temperature up even further.
Over the years, and despite several moves, the layout of the studio remained the same, although the actual setup has evolved to accommodate technological improvements (mostly where lighting was concerned) and modifications to the furniture and accessories used for the decor.
Like all West African photographic studios, the Studio du Nord was organised into three distinct areas consisting in:
A space for receiving clients which opened onto the exterior,
An area used solely for shooting the photos,
A dark room for developing the film and blowing up the photos.
The reception space was equiped with a counter and a bench for clients to wait their turn. Black and white and colour portraits of varying sizes, and a whole series of identity photos, were displayed on wooden boards or on the walls, so that the clients could see how skilled the photographer was and to give them ideas as to how to pose if they were still undecided. This was also where the business was carried out between the photographer and his clients – where the format was chosen, prices negotiated, deposits paid, receipts issued, and the photographs handed over. For the people who came to have their photos taken, this space created a kind of transition between the exterior (the mundane space of the outside world) and the interior (the space devoted to taking the photos, where access was limited).
The area used for taking the photos could be separated from the reception area, if necessary, by a curtain strung on a wire so that the intimate relationship that was created between the photographer and the photographed remained intact. The theatrical nature of this space was amplified by artificial lighting – the studio’s temporarility is quite distinct from that of the outside world – and the decor (floor covering and backdrop) that the photographees could not change. In other studios, the clients could choose between several backgrounds such as a decor painted on a curtain or the wall, and/or curtains of various colours. However, Cornélius Augustt’s clients could have fun with the available accessories (chair, artificial flours, toy phone) and men who wanted to be photographed wearing European attire could borrow clothes from the photographer (jacket, dark suite, white shirt, tie, hat). Along the same lines, various other accessories (such as a mirror, combs, brushes and talcum powder to matify faces dotted with perspiration) were made available to clients wanting to adjust their clothes, makeup or hair one last time. In addition to all this, the clients could bring their own accessories with them, such as their scooter, portable stereo, a sheep, work tools, hunting riffle and game, etc.
Access to the dark room, which was set up in a corner of the photographer’s bedroom, was strictly forbidden. It was here, in a room lit by an ordinary light-bulb that had been painted red and without running water, that Cornélius Augustt personally developed millions of rolls of film and printed hundreds of thousands of photos, refusing to leave this important task up to any assistants he might have had. Admittedly, not only did it take years of training (2-3 years and often more) to master the techniques used in the dark room, but this was also the key to the photographer’s professional identity and their social legitimacy.
While taboos concerning access to the dark room are part of on-going traditional magical and religious practices intended to separate those who commune with supernatural forces (the dark room being the place in which an image appears where once there was only a blank page), it should be noted that the the photographic studio was radically innovative in that it provided a space in which the celebration of a strictly private ritual was preserved. Given the context of societies where individuals showing signs of wanting to isolate themselves are suspected of anti-social designs, and even accused of witchcraft, the photographic studio made it possible for the photographees to obtain an image of themselves that had been conceived and created away from the group’s visual control.
Once the door was shut or the curtain drawn, the space was cut off from the world and protected from the eyes of the others and a unique dialogue was initiated between the photographer and the photographee in order to produce an image that was satisfactory to both parties. This was because the photographees also had their say. They could choose when to take the photo and what costumes to use (in the theatrical sense of the word), and – most importantly – the photographer, like all good businessmen, wanted to satisfy his customers, even though he was able to impose his view because of the technical constraints, decor and basic photographic rules. As a matter of fact, an art historian recently raised the question of whether authorihip of the portraits done by the great portrait photographer, Seydou Keïta, should also be attributed to the people who sat for them (Bigham, 1999).
Under these conditions, the image that resulted from this process can be seen as the fruit of a compromise between the relatively clearly expressed desires of the photographee and the relatively strict standards that the photographer was bound by. However, there was a general consensus about what a portrait should  » clinically  » look like. By this it should be understood that the photographic image was given the role of clearly portraying the subject’s identity while the accent was placed on its ability to reflect reality. This characteristic is related to the very common practice of having identity photos taken – identity and portrait photos are taken by the same photographers – which largely contributed to the widespread notion that the photograhic image is a truthful image. In other words, by using photography as a official tool for the registering of truth, colonial governments encouraged Africans to relate to photography as a form of  » mimesis « . Nevertheless, over the years they progressively came to tame this imported craft and representations bluring the line between reality and fiction progressively replaced mimetic photography.
For this reason, Cornélius Augustt’s photographic archives documenting 40 years of work are a unique resource because he systematically and rigorously stored everything. Hand-written notes on each negative have enabled us to classify them chronologically, and it is almost possible to follow the photographer’s work from one day to the next, both from a quantitative (change over time in output and revenue) and qualitative (changes in the codes governing how the photographees were seated, diversity of activities) point of view.
Initially, photography’s power of truth was used to testify to the photographee’s belonging to their community. It ensured that the outward signs (cloth, cut of their clothes, ritual scarification, hairstyle, jewellery, stance, etc.) of their belonging to a specific cultural group were given the maximum possible visibility – through standing portraits. This contributed to the collective ethos, transforming the individual into a persona or – in the etimological sense of the term – a masked actor who acted out the role conferred upon him by the community.
Over the years, there has been a dual move away from these conventions. On the one hand, the outward signs of the photographee’s ethnic origin have been cast aside in favour of their social status and professonal role (footballer, boxer, policeman, nurse, etc.). On the other hand, the individual’s personality and distinctive physical traits are emphasized through the use of close-up shots (mid-shot portraits, facial close-ups).
Taken to the extreme, the individual’s quest for a perfectly true image of themselves has resulted in some people using photography to capture truth in every detail of their bodies. This has seen some men and women taking advantage of the intimacy of the studio to bare themselves, within the boundaries imposed by the photographers.
Torn between the community and their own individuality, between attributed status and acquired roles, between reality and fiction, the men and women of Korhogo – who were also influenced by modernisation – have used the studio as a social testing ground. With the help of the few tools available to them, they have built images of themselves that are often hybrids at once following the age-old rhetoric that speaks of dignity and strength, and borrowing freely from imported images spread throughout Africa by the press, advertising, film and television.
In societies undergoing a kind of individualisation without individualism (Marie, 1997), the photographic studio has undoubtedly provided a secure place – free of censorship by the community – where the photographees could let their individualistic desires run free and create photographic representations of an identity that is no longer allocated and immovable but rather acquired and constantly evolving.
Today, although many photographic studios have closed down following the advent of colour during the 1980s (Werner, 1998), the photographees have more control over how their portraits are taken because they can now have their photographs taken by street photographers wherever they want – in public or in private – whenever they want. Thus, the entire social arena has become one huge photographic stage and photography has triumphed.

Bigham, E., Issues of Authorship in the Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta, in African Arts, XXXII, 1, 1999, pp. 56-57.
Marie, A. (Ed), L’Afrique des individus, Karthala, Paris, 1997.
Sloterdijk, Peter, Essai d’Intoxication volontaire, Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 1999.
Werner, J. -F., Le crépuscule des studios, in Anthologie de la photographie africaine et de l’Océan Indien, XIXe et XXe siècles, Revue Noire, Paris, 1998, pp. 93-99.
Werner, J. -F. and Nimis E., Zur Gesichte der Fotographie im Frankophonem Westafrika in Snap me one! Studiofotografen in Afrika, Wendl T. & Behrend H. (Eds), Stadtmuseum/Prestel, 1998, pp. 17-23.
Jean-François Werner is an anthropologist and researcher for the IRD and has studied the production conditions and social role of photographic portraits in West Africa for the past 10 years. He is responsible for the conversation of the Augustt archives.///Article N° : 5536


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