Colonial era photography from Africa, is typically fraught by the problematic depiction of subject as specimen. No matter how majestic the individual, it carries with it that acrid tinge of sadness. That is the legacy of the European eye, it sought to either extol the so called benefits of colonialism, or paint a provincial and primitive picture for a European audience. The imperative being audience, for in the case of Senegal, the audience there sought an altogether different vision of themselves.
And so came about the Studio dream factories which transposed those desires into timeless artistry. Relevant then within their milieu, and finally now to a global audience ready to engage the complexity that always was. Paris Photo 2011, the world’s largest photography fair confirmed this very readiness. Under the fair’s chosen theme of African photography, the two most prominently featured photographers by gallerists and private collections alike, were Malian studio era maestros Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta.
Mama Casset like his Malian counterparts, was one of those ‘visionaires.’ A Senegalese photographer who acquired his technical skills as an apprentice to a European photographer, like so many other African studio photographers of that era. His story is likely to have been forgotten, especially due to a catastrophe that would befall his studio in 1984. However in 1992 , Senegalese photographer Bouna Médoune Seye organised a tribute and Casset’s first-ever solo exhibition at Parisian Gallery 39. Sadly, Casset would not live to see it, passing away a mere few weeks before the show’s inauguration. This step however, would once again bring him into the limelight, this time well beyond the borders of his native land.
He was born in 1920 in the administrative capital of the day, Saint-Louis. Casset was introduced to the world of photography at the tender age of twelve. His family had relocated to the economic capital of Dakar just two years before, which is where he would meet French photographer Oscar Lataque, a friend of his father’s. Upon completing elementary school, Casset became an employee of Comptoir photographique de l’Afrique Occidental Française, a photographic store run by another French gentleman by the name of Tennequin who he would apprentice under.
From there his next venture led him to join the photographic department of the French Air Force. A curious fellow, he was eager to see the world and its lands, a desire encouraged during his military tour, as he travelled throughout the region documenting mostly aerial images of ‘French West Africa.’ In 1942, he left military service. By 1943 he had established a name for himself, opening his first photographic studio, African Photo in the centre of Dakar’s Medina, a lively commercial district.
Casset grew renown photographing members of his social circle. Word quickly got out and before long, he was masterfully composing images of Dakar’s residents, urban Africans from all walks of life and varying social strata. By 1960, with independence came the demise of the European studio. Casset thought it timely to open his second outpost in M’Bour, a coastal town south of Dakar. He flourished, becoming one of the top photographers of his day.
Things were however to take a tragic turn in the later years of his life. By 1983 Casset was completely blind and forced to retire. Adding insult to injury, the following year his studio caught fire destroying the majority of his archives. The few images remaining, hidden from public view, and scattered in the photo albums and personal collections of Dakar’s families. As Revue Noire‘s publishers so poignantly phrase it, “therein lies the difficulty of promoting such an artist; of being able to ascribe him his rightful place in the history of Senegalese and African photography with the few images that are available. But what wonderful images they are!”
Mama Casset’s images are made unique through his masterful eye and artistic compositions. As a portrait photographer, Casset saw himself as an ‘artist’; he had no interest to portray real life as could be implied by the very nature of the medium. Directing his sitters with a tilt of the head, or a tight framing and sometimes shooting from a low-angle; he created his signature style, compositions that put the irrevocable stamp of Mama Casset all over them. Like the Malian photographer Seydou Keïta in his earlier years, Casset only used a simple curtain as a backdrop, bringing all attention to the fore, his subject.
His surviving images grant viewers today, the opportunity to see the urban Senegalites, from the turn of the 20th century as they saw themselves, as proud individuals. These images confer a small taste of the seductive power inherit to the mastery of a great – such as Casset was, and continues to be as his images live on.
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The following introduction is based on the book Mama Casset, African Photo published by Paris-based Revue Noire, written by Pascal Martin Saint Leon and Jean Loup Pivin.
Mama Casset, the small format [13 x 18 cm] book showcasing 70 black and white photographs by Mama Casset is available exclusively through Revue Noire, Paris | more info
All images courtesy of Maison Revue Noire.