Picturing an occasion

Two photographers portray a nation's style and sense of self

The portraits of photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, still active today, capture young people on the verge of adulthood. The swirl of clothing styles the subjects wear also documents a newly decolonized African country experiencing great social change. Their portraits are the subject of a show at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass.

Since the 1960s, sitters have flocked to the studios of Messrs. Sidibe and Keita, located in the West African city of Bamako, Mali. In the 1950s and '60s, when the 72 black-and-white images in the show were taken, few in Mali could take their own photos. And because "everything is an occasion to take a picture" in Mali, Sidibe says, "the camera became their mirror."

Among the portraits: A man has just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, and wants to be seen practicing his faith. A woman has a new baby, or an intricate hairstyle, so she wants to display and share her image at home.

During a lecture associated with the show, Sidibe was asked if he would ever photograph other subjects - landscapes, perhaps. No, he said. "Portraits are worldly and social," he explained, but "landscapes are merely pleasure for the eyes."

The exhibit is titled "You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe." The phrase, a common expression in Bambara, a language spoken widely in Mali, expresses perfectly what the photographers have successfully captured: moments in time that perfectly reflect the subject's style and sense of self.

You Look Beautiful Like That' is on view through Dec. 16.

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