The pioneering Black artists who revitalised photography

The pioneering Black artists who revitalised photography

The world‘s a stage — Leading art critic Robert Storr reflects on the photographers – from Seydou Keïta, to Malick Sidibé, to Carrie Mae Weems – who helped to transform and redefine the medium.

If “seeing is believing,” photography can be a slippery slope, falling into a curious space between art and evidence. Our fixation on photography as a form of truth can be attributed to “a desire for a representation that doesn’t lie,” says Robert Storr, author of the new book Writings on Art 2006-2021 (Heni).

“People don’t realise that the truth they’re looking for probably doesn’t exist in the first place,” he explains. “But if they do, somebody constructed that ‘truth’ from bits and pieces of reality of what one could experience directly.”

Storr cites Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” as one of the most enduring myths of photography. “There was this idea that the camera could capture the essence of reality and the photographer had to wait for that moment to present itself,” he says. 

Seydou Keïta, Untitled (Man with Flower), 1959

“The truth is, Cartier-Bresson took a lot of photographs that were close but not exact – so it’s not like he had some mythical ability to divine when that moment would happen.” 

Photography is littered with fictions and fabrications, many of them imposed by the cultural biases of artists and institutions themselves. Invented in the mid-nineteenth century, the camera became a tool of European imperialists as they colonised the globe. 

As nations achieved independence, photography became a tool of liberation in the hands of the people. For photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé working in post-colonial Mali, the portrait became a means to express identity, agency, and self-determination. 

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1952-55

Carrie Mae Weems, Dad and Son-Son, 1978-84

“To see and capture individuality – as distinct from making a photographic case for ‘individualism’, an inherently ideological project that immediately trips on cultural differences between East and West, North and South – was Keïta’s extraordinary and sustaining gift,” Storr writes in the book.

Sidibé shared this gift in his extraordinary record of youth culture, defining itself in both his studio portraits and documentary photographs. “Sidibé found theatrical presence in ordinary people because they knew how to show up, dressed in their Sunday best,” says Storr.

While Keïta and Sidibé capture people living as though all the world were a stage, African-American artist Carrie Mae Weems transforms the photograph into a work of performance art.

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-57

Malick Sidibé, Chaussettes noires Party, 14 February 1964

“She’s an actress and uses her presence as an anchor to play a role,” Storr says. “Carrie Mae is an essentialised African-American woman representing all the things that can possibly mean in situations that are keyed to the presence or absence of Black women.”

In being both photographer and subject, Weems uses the camera to explore the construction of archetypes and myths at the intersection of gender and race. “She is photographing things as she sees them for people as she knows them, but is not trying to create a universal experience,” says Storr.

Occupying the space of both photographer and subject, Weems reminds us that images are constructions designed to convey feelings and ideas. They can centre or marginalise, embrace or exploit, render or erase individuals and histories alike. The photograph is evidence – perhaps less of what it shows than of the beliefs and intentions of the artist making it.

Malick Sidibé, James Brown Fans, 1965.

Malick Sidibé, Young Man with Bell Bottoms, Bag and Watch, 1977.

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