Sanlé Sory, Volta Photo @Yossi Milo

JTF (Just the facts): A total of 88 black and white photographs, in white mats and white frames, exhibited in three rooms: on four walls of the East gallery; three walls of the middle gallery; and on four walls of the West gallery. Most of the prints are sized 20×16 inches, made in editions of 15+5AP. Exceptions are eight 20x24s (editions of 10+3AP) and five 42x42s (editions of 9+3AP.) All the prints were made in 2017 from negatives that date between 1966-1984. The East wall of the East gallery is festooned with black-and-white stripes, as are all of the walls of the West gallery, which also has a black and white checkered floor. (Installation shots below.)

The exhibition is accompanied by a limited edition book of 74 previously unseen studio portraits co-published by Yossi Milo Gallery and Tezeta (here).

Comments/Context: When galleries and museums in the 1990s began to exhibit studio portraits made in the colonies of former French West Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s, audiences in Europe and U.S. greeted the photographs without reservations, as welcome additions to the canon. The previously unknown Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) and Malick Sidibé (1936-2016) quickly became art world celebrities.

Why this happened has not been adequately analyzed. People who could not identify anyone in the pictures, who had never visited West Africa or learned much, if anything, about Malian art and music—in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or ever—responded to these photographs with enthusiasm, as if cultural barriers didn’t exist. Translation wasn’t necessary.

This ready approval has been (so far) geographically confined to modern prints from the former French West Africa. Studio photographers from other countries that gained independence after 1960—Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Malaysia, Fiji, Mozambique—have not found comparable popularity. (One exception is the Cameroonian-Nigerian Samuel Fosso, whose self portraits are more self-consciously artistic in their ambition.)

Sanlé Sory (b. 1943) is the latest French-speaking West African photographer to excite the international art world, and deservedly so. His portraits have the same vitality and improvisatory pizzazz exhibited in the photographs of Sidibé. No foreigner on assignment for Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar could have taken pictures of the same people and achieved the relaxed intimacy of these sessions. Men and women strike poses based on the latest movies they’ve seen, wearing their clothes and hairstyles with the confident self-possession of Paris runway models. Their trust in Sory, as a local professional who would never question, judge or demean their aspirations, encourages bubbly good humor and to rise to the surface. They take obvious pleasure in the act of being photographed, a feeling that the viewer cannot help but share.

Sory was a teenager in 1960 when he opened a portrait studio in Bobo-Dioulasso, the cultural capital of what was then the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso.) A landlocked country, frequently ranked among the poorest in the world, with one of the highest fertility rates, it nonetheless has a vital cinema tradition—every two years, Bobo-Dioulasso hosts the largest film festival in Africa—as well as a thriving popular music scene that has drawn on the Mande-based Afro Pop of Salif Keïta, as well as Cuban rhythms and punchy American funk.

Sory learned to use a Rolleiflex 6×6 twin-reflex and to process black and white film and prints. His cousin, the musician Idrissa Koné, set him up in business and steered customers his way. One of the most faithful was the group Volta Jazz, managed by Koné. Sory became their go-to photographer for publicity purposes and ingratiated himself with other stars based in or passing through Bobo. (Sory had the city to himself in the early ‘60s, as most portrait photographers in Upper Volta lived in Ouagadougou, its governmental capital.)

Early visitors to the first studio—named Volta Photo and founded only two years after country had separated from France—were portrayed in front of blank walls or Roman columns. After moving to a larger space a few years later, he was able to buy more imaginative and contemporary scenarios. Artists from Ghana and Benin were commissioned to paint backdrops, and he began to add props.

“Some of the women wanted their makeup done, some of the men wanted suits and ties,” he told the Guardian. “Our collection grew: we found Air Afrique flight bags, radios, telephones, lamps, record players, plastic guns—anything to help people make the picture their own. They could look richer, more fashionable…it was just a way for them to feel good about themselves…” Malian customers, notoriously fashion-forward, turned up for sessions with multiple changes of clothes.

“The airplane backdrop was particularly popular with young people who couldn’t afford to travel,” according to Sory. “It gave them a chance to experiment, to escape their ordinary lives and play with elements of the modern world. My studio fulfilled people’s fantasies….Fun was central to my work. If people didn’t enjoy themselves, they wouldn’t have come back. We would crack jokes, play music, laugh the whole time.”

Every portrait is a performance of sorts, and these examples are full of play acting by a culture testing the new sexual and fashion boundaries that independence had surveyed on the horizon. Enfin Prêts (Finally Ready, 1971) features a couple of buff young studs. They address the camera with scowls, hands on hips, their shirts open to mid-chest. In a disco, women might dismiss them as caricatures of wild and crazy guys. In the studio, they can pretend without fear of ridicule to be cocks of the walk. In this safe space, men could be a pirate, superhero, prize fighter,  wheeler dealer, body builder, airline pilot, soldier, John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever, or a philosopher with a pipe. The youth astride a motorbike in Yamaha de nuit (Yamaha at Night, 1972) may not have had the money for one in the world outside, but he can afford the sunglasses and the attitude he sports, as well as the nominal price of the portrait. Male posturing was expected within one’s peer group. Regardez-moi attentivement (Watch Me Closely, 1980) shows a bare-chested man in bellbottoms and a bell cap who holds out his finger as a warning, mock or not, that will not to be ignored.

The women in Sory’s portraits, on the other hand, are more sedate and less confrontational. Many sit or curl up rather than stand. They don’t rely on the fantasy of Hollywood or comic book prototypes for their poses. It’s enough to have the patterned folds of their outfits and headdresses, the luster of their unblemished faces, described and their dignity validated. Mariam assisse (Mariam seated, 1979) wears a dark sleeveless tie-dyed dress. Her chin rests on her folded hands as she stares toward the photographer with serene aplomb.

Almost everyone in these portraits is under 25 but feigning a maturity belied by their birth certificates. I doubt that more than one or two men and women are as old as forty. As such, they are participants in the global youthquake that shifted the plates beneath several continents in the ‘60s. They may have grown up on farming villages in Upper Volta, but in these photographs they are sophisticated urbanites, declaring that their pop culture references are up to date.

In his adoption of zany props and his close ties to West African music and dance trends during the ’60s and ’70s, Sory has lots in common with Sidibé. One can imagine them laughing at the same jokes, and listening to the same bands. Both catered to customers who went to their studios to escape from the lives for an hour; the photographer’s job was to help them realize fantasies that they didn’t know they harbored. How much Sidibé and Sory intervened in the creation of a scenario, and how much they allowed their clients to pose themselves, is hard to say. Keïta’s sensibility seems less faddish and more solemn, befitting his status as the eldest of the three. Being made with a large-format camera, his photographs couldn’t be as improvisational either.

Sory is also having a solo show—his first in a U.S. museum—at the Art institute of Chicago (here, through August 29, 2018). The curator Matthew S. Witkovksy has organized the work as a multi-media immersive experience—“as a cross between a photography studio and a record store,” in the words of the press release. To further convey a wish that the images be viewed in a cultural context of place and period, he has also given it a groovy title: Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the Good People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty African Country of Burkina Faso. Interspersed with the photographs are music album covers, for which Sanle took the group portraits, studio lights, a backdrop, a dial telephone, and a transistor radio.

Not having seen the exhibition—only the checklist as well as Witkovsky’s informative essay for the catalog published by Steidl—I can only note a couple of significant differences between the photographs in the two venues. (The only image that I can find common in both shows is a bare-chested self-portrait of Sory in a mirror.)

Most of the AIC prints are vintage. Many are dated between 1965 and 1975, some 1970 and 1980. About a dozen were printed in 2017, which is when everything in the Milo show was done.

As artifacts of West Africa in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the older prints are smaller and, inevitably, on thinner paper. (Whether this makes the paper “inferior” is open for debate.) All of the prints at the AIC are untitled, whereas all of the portraits at Milo have been given evocative, snazzy, or funny titles by Sory: Belle de Jour ((1975), Rasta Cool (1980), Retour du marché aus boeufs (1975), Bien Cravaté (1972), Karaté fou (1978).

Most importantly, all of the modern prints (at the AIC and Milo) are full-frame from the original square format negatives. Sory customers did not care to see the artifice of his handiwork and so he cropped their portraits to eliminate light stands and other studio paraphernalia on the right and left edges. He has put back that clutter into the newer prints and, to my eye, made them livelier, if perhaps less “authentic” records of their time. Collectors can—and no doubt will—argue about which prints are more valuable.

Witkovsky’s essay identifies some of Sory’s shrewd business practices. Sometimes assistants would be left in charge of the studio while he wooed clients in the streets or in record stores. He promoted “bush parties” in the countryside where people would gather to hear music and dance. After selling them tickets to the events, he would offer to take souvenir portraits that they could buy. His strategy was designed to separate himself from his competitors. “In town I wasn’t the only one,” he has said in an interview. “But it was just me in the bush. I was the only one doing that.”

Whether taken in the studio or in the bush, the photographs were, Witkovsky argues, “less keepsakes of that event than byproducts of it. ‘No one ever came back and asked to reprint a picture,’ Sory has recalled. “They don’t need it, and they don’t care.’”

Why, then, do we?

Nostalgia for the analog past may have something to do with our attachment to these documents, even if they are modern prints. It’s significant that Keïta, Sidibé and Sory did not grab the attention of European or American curators at the time these photographs were originally taken in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and probably could not have. Only as they, and the people in their photographs, have become historical rather than contemporary, can they can be appreciated and prized.

Sory has lived through this transformation and himself feels that he is obsolete. “I would shoot all day and develop the photos all night,” he has said, with perhaps a touch of exaggeration. “I did it all myself, only needing an assistant or two when trade was good. It was a craft and I wanted to perfect the technical side of shooting. I miss those days before digital. Now everyone’s a photographer and that killed the trade for people like me. Because for me, that’s what it was: a trade.”

Sory’s people are nameless but, like those in the prints of Chambi and Disfarmer, rendered with a fidelity and grace that is exceptional in vernacular portraiture. The two artists whose images swam constantly into my brain as I walked through the galleries at Milo, though, were the teenaged JH Lartigue and Ryan McGinley. The serious goal of picture making for all of them could be summed up as playfulness.

Evidence of fun and high spirits between photographer and model isn’t common in portraits, and when it happens, as it does with remarkable consistency in this joyful show, all parties involved have our thanks.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000 (for 20x16s), $5000 (for 20x24s), and $8000 (for 42x42s). Sory’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Sanlé Sory, Yossi Milo Gallery, Yossi Milo Gallery

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