Seydou Keïta

Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) was a Malian photographer, whose work is the subject of an Paris exhibition, as Jeremy Harding explains in his review. We are told that Keïta took over 10,000 portraits, which were mostly formally posed.

The Grand Palais, which is exhibiting the work, offers the following eulogy: ‘now considered one of the greatest photographers of the second half of the twentieth century. Showing off his subjects to best advantage, his mastery of framing and light and the modernity and inventiveness of his compositions all earned him a huge success’.

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Keïta’s work is generously available on the web, through his official website and Instagram account.

Generalities that stand out are that all sitters are highly dignified; there is no trivial smiling, just a sense of relaxed concentration and gravity. Aperture quotes Keïta reacting to this observation, ‘“Having your portrait taken was a big deal, it was really important to give the best possible image of each person,” Keïta stated in 1997. “Often they took on a serious air, but I think it was probably because they were intimidated—it was new.”

In the background are simple drapes to mask the scene behind the sitters. There is no sense of context in the work, it is focused on the image of the person, with distractions minimised. Some of his portraits do feature props, but these are perhaps more symbols of status rather than natural context of the sitters. For example, in one portrait there is a motor scooter and in another a large transistor radio, which the sitter is leaning upon.

The image to the left caught my eye as the sitter has her back to camera and looks over her shoulder towards us; in all the other portraits viewed, the sitters were formally front-facing or 3/4 facing. It is impossible to know the reason for the exception; perhaps to show the elaborate pattern of the lady’s dress and head scarf? The lighting is interesting, illuminating the front of her face from above; with catch-lights to the top of her eyes and deep shadows under he cheekbones and below her shoulder. Perhaps some natural light fills her back to help show the details on her dress.


There is perhaps a real danger that modern photographers in the affluent societies can get become pre-occupied with the need to have certain equipment to get the job done. There is the marketing from the camera and equipment manufactures to reinforce that perspective. However, Keïta created wonderful images with simple equipment and backdrops; this is a valuable lesson to remember – learn to work well with what one has, and focus on creative skills.


Aperture [website]. Revisiting Seydou Keïta. Available from: [accessed 25.7.16]

Grand Palais [website]. Available from: [accessed 25.7.16]

Harding J (2016). London Review of Books [website]. At the Grand Palais (30 June).  Available from: [accessed 25.7.16]

Instagram [photo sharing site]. Seydou Keïta. Available from: [accessed 25.7.16]

Seydou Keïta [website]. Available from: [accessed 25.7.16]

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