Is African studio photography, Cape Town art writer Sean O’Toole asks in frieze magazine, dying out? The answer, non-subscribers, is maybe. Everywhere in the modern world the business of professional photography is in decline. O’Tool argues that studio photography has suffered the economies of the ‘digital revolution’ and the rise of the mobile phone camera. According to him the easy publishing of social networking sites has dealt a death blow to the popular African institution.

Studio photography has been the medium of many of Africa’s most internationally renowned artists. Malick Sidibé’s (b. 1935) joyful shots of independent Mali, are celebrated in this year’s Paris Photo and the ninth biennale in his native Bamako. Similarly, the virtuosic monochrome portraits of Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) have gathered acclaim since his first exhibition in Paris in 1994. The two Malian photographers are often coupled together in indexes of African photography, but there is an critical distinction between their practices. Sidibé went onto the streets of Bamako, and used his talents for reportage. In 1962, two years after Independence, Keïta was nominated official photographer of the single-party socialist state. In a 2008 interview with lensculture, Sidibé spoke about Keïta:

People showed me his photos, but I didn’t go to his studio. Many things prevented me from going to Seydou’s. With my notoriety from reporting, going to Seydou’s studio … They all had it in their minds I might put a spell on them, or something like that, to make them lose customers, so I never went to the studio. … It was Seydou who came to me to bring cameras to be repaired. Back then, Seydou had almost finished at his studio. He was now working for the government, taking ID photos of prisoners, and so on. So I did not go to Seydou’s studio. No.

Sidibé is clearly troubled by the medium they share, and tries to establish distance between his work and Keïta’s along the lines of professoinalism and politics. The spirit of radical dissidence inhabits Sidibé’s work, which is difficult to place into the categories of the professional photographer. This art is haunted by the camera’s availability as a tool for state control.

Photography has always been deeply involved with politics. Early photographs which celebrated the brief life of the 1870 Paris Commune were later used to identify and prosecute the communards. In the first scene of Athol Fugard’s monumental play, Siswe Bansi is dead, a man arrives at a studio in provincial South Africa to have a photograph taken. It is, he says, to send his wife in the country. The play shifts back in time and it transpires that this man is Siswe Bansi, on the run from the police. Bansi and a friend discover a dead man in an alleyway and decide Bansi should steal his identity. The play ends back at the beginning, and Bansi is photographed for his new identity papers. In this studio, photographs are not only taken for personal portraits but passport photography, and the camera is as much an apparatus of state control as a joyful commemoration of life. At the end of the play, Siswe Bansi is dead and the photograph is the document which tells his wife he is still alive; the photograph is a technology which wakes the dead, and kills the living.

The young career of Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (b. 1965), whose work is currently on display at the Jack Bell gallery in London, makes an interesting engagement with the traditions of studio photography. A year ago Agbodjelou was making work which looks unexceptional against the backdrop of post-modern African image-making: grinning men wearing sunglasses and brightly coloured clothing pose against patterned wallpaper. It is clear that the subjects of these photographs are their maker’s clients. Agbodjelou learnt the trade from his father, Joseph Moise Agbodjelou (1912-2000), a photographer well-known in and outside of his native Benin. A small picture by Joseph Agbodjelou sits opposite these smiling men. In this a woman poses in front of a torn studio backdrop which hardly covers the bare wall of the building behind. Leonce Agbodjelou’s most recent series, the Engungun Project, represents a return to these stark and humble beginnings.

The Engungun are masqueraders in the Yoruba traditions of Benin and southern Nigeria who ritually cleanse the local community. The actors wear costumes made out of furs, found fabrics, imitation shells and sequins, designed to adorn the motion of their performance. As Charles Gore’s exhibition notes explain, these figures embody ‘both named and unnamed’ ancestors, which often ‘vary from recent deceased and historical forbears, to acting as community executioners of criminals and witches’. No one in the community is permitted to know who the actors are; they become the walking dead.

The project of gathering these images was not an unpolitical act: Agbodjelou was sent home from one trip to southern Nigeria by the police, threatened by the presence of his camera. The exhibition notes also mention recent threats to the Engungun traditions:

the rise of Pentecostal churches in the 1990’s across West Africa [presented] a new challenge to Engungun masquerade … as these churches sought to demonise indigenous religions (and their pantheons of deities) as pagan and dangerous and, as such, to be vehemently rejected. Engungun has responded in elaborating a counter-narrative of localised Yoruba memories, personalised histories and ritual through public performance that upholds the ethical values of the community.

The photographs displayed in the gallery are not labelled, and the viewer is thus denied even their subjects’ namelessness. The streets and rural areas in which the figures are placed are carefully lit to highlight the texture of this studio en plein air. The intended effect of this project is, it seems, not to catalogue this spectacle with an ethnographic lens, but to make its curious spirit manifest.

The thesis of O’Toole’s article, that non-specialist publishing on social networking sites endangers the life of African studio photography, demands further thought. The claim recalls a belief, after the invention of the daguerrotype, that painting would become obsolete. Photography did not murder painting, which responded with Impressionism and the birth of a revolutionary avant-garde. It is apparently one of modern art’s most cherished lies to declare a medium bankrupt in order that the next generation of artists inherit the task of reinventing it. O’Toole refers to the work of Cheik Diallo, Santu Mofokeng and Kwame Apagya as exponents of an art-form which is not so much artistically dead, as financially defunct. This argument does not consider the crucial distinction between photography as art and as business. The significance of vocation is concretely proven in Bamako. Seydou Keïta retired in 1977 at the age of 56. O’Toole notes that this was “around the time ‘colour photography took over’ and machines started doing the work”. As it turned out, colour film did not bring about the end of art photography but has contributed to its expansion. Malick Sidibé still practices in the studio he established in 1958.

Commentators have often warned of the vulnerability of social networking to abuse by governments and corporations. There are not many countries in which political dissidents may use the internet without some fear of supervision. It is important that photography – in digital and film, in the street and in the studio, on websites and gallery walls – negate the camera’s use as an apparatus of state power and corporate interests. It is difficult to predict how social networking will influence art in the future, but the photographers whose vocation it is to document life in Africa will without doubt continue to confront the politics of image-making with energy and self-consciousness. There is hope within the ethical ambivalence of photography; a camera in certain hands becomes the weapon that disarms itself. Joseph Beuys recognised the same when he called for art to heal the knife that cuts the wound. Leonce Agbodjelou’s odd, faceless images are useful reminders that some things may be photographed but not captured.