« How the Yoruba See Themselves » in the Year 2000
The article by Stephen Sprague1 on Yoruba photography published in African Arts towards the end of 19782 is an indispensable read for those interested in the history of Nigerian/West African photography3. In the latter part of 2000, while in Nigeria on field surveys for my PhD in history4, I spent several days in the Igbomina Yoruba town of Ila-Orangun where Sprague had done his research a quarter of a century earlier.
The town had changed significantly since the summer of 1975. Some places and their protagonists no longer existed. I was shocked to learn of the death of the Orangun on May 2, 1999, twenty years, to the day, after the disappearance of Stephen Sprague: a troubling coincidence. The palace of the man who had reigned over the city for more than three decades was deserted. The portraits and insignia glorifying the Orangun referred to in Sprague’s articles had been removed and distributed among the different royal families. The election of a new king had been a long time coming.
In 1975, there were ten photo studios in Ila-Orangun for 30 000 inhabitants. In 2000, the population had tripled and some sixty individuals were involved in photography as studio or outdoor photographers. Two factors led to the emergence of outdoor photographers: the economic crisis and the development of colour laboratories at the end of the 1980’s. It was no longer necessary to invest in a studio. Like street vendors, these photographers canvassed customers, offering them colour portraits at very reasonable prices, creating a serious threat for professional photographers whose rates were much higher.
As soon as I had arrived, I went to greet the “hero” of Sprague’s articles, Sir Special Photo5, who had since become Uncle Special Video. He was the oldest career photographer and president of the Association of Professional Photographers of Ila-Orangun. In 35 years of business, many things had changed for Sir Special who had, along with others, ventured into video.
During my visit, I was quickly brought abreast of the latest developments in the photographic community. The photographer Chief Atos had died the previous year. In the deserted premises of his studio, only the mural paintings remained as an ultimate homage to their former master. Another photographer, I. Mudah, had abandoned photography for religion. Oyus had become a driver. Reversely, the photographer Adé was still there, as was Simple Photos. Upon seeing the article, the latter went to his archives and retrieved Sprague’s portrait of him published in African Arts. For a moment I felt as if I was backtracking in time. Adé, who had become Uncle Adé De Love, clearly remembered Sprague, to whom he had taught the rudiments of solar enlargement. To compensate for the crisis currently affecting his trade, Adé was offering his clientele photocopying and plastic lamination services. He admitted to still using the battery of his motorcycle whose headlight could serve as lighting for his enlarger in case of power failures, a frequent occurrence in Ila-Orangun. Finally, Sir Ayo Ariyo Photo appeared happily optimistic. His trade had been the source of much satisfaction. He had married two women who had given him twelve children, five of whom were photographers.
As early as 1978, Stephen Sprague had raised the possibility of Yoruba women exercising the profession of photography. In 2000, Adunni Photo was the only female photographer in Ila-Orangun in charge of a studio. She had begun in 1977 and, at the time, it had been a challenge for her. Since then, she had trained many apprentices, including her own daughter Abiola, aged 22, and a student of biology and chemistry. Another female photographer, Titi, lived in Ila-Orangun, but had become a shopkeeper who took on photographic assignments only occasionally.
As was the case elsewhere in West Africa in the mid 1980’s, black and white photos and medium format had given way to colour and 35mm film. Video came a bit later. Black and white was used only for identity photos. Although colour was widespread, the photographers of Ila-Orangun did not have a local laboratory to process their films. They organized three collections per week to send their films to Oshogbo or Ilorin for processing.
With the advent of colour, the art of portraits and customer demand evolved rapidly. For example, grey-toned studio backgrounds representing urban settings had almost totally disappeared, replaced by increasingly textured coloured backdrops. Although rural customers continued to prefer full size portraits, older folk continued to prefer the traditional formal portrait described by Sprague while young urbanites preferred the three quarter face portrait (also known as the thigh shot). Customers were increasingly steering clear of studios, preferring outdoor portraits and “on invitation” work (to cover family events). Demand for the Ibeji portraits described in detail by Sprague appeared to have dropped off considerably (as had the infant mortality rate) and it had even become taboo for some. However, the practice continued to exist.
To fight the unfair competition from outdoor photographers, studio photographers tried to diversify their activities by acquiring photocopiers and video cameras or by selling photographic material. They also tried consolidating the photographers’ association, but their efforts were in vain. The association struggled to survive with some thirty regular members. Yet the new generation seemed to be answering the call, despite the crisis and increased market competition.
Holding a certificate of apprenticeship (crowning a long apprenticeship averaging three years) continued to be mandatory to exercise the trade professionally. To my great surprise, young photographers knew how to do solar enlargement, even though the practice had disappeared with the advent of electricity at the end of 1975. The son of Pax was among them. In addition to mastering the latest flash and video techniques perfectly, he was able to explain to me clearly the process described by Sprague. Newly released by Pax Photo, Precise T. Photo had just inaugurated his first studio at the brand new shopping complex of Ila-Orangun. Despite his young age (22), he evinced a real interest for studio portraits and was already training an apprentice in the subtleties of artificial light. He also held the position of secretary-general with the association.
A new generation was emerging, even if the profession appeared to be compromised by the proliferation of outdoor photographers. Among their ranks was Orland De Touch, a student. Between two language courses, he offered his services at the College of Education campus. He had learned about photography by reading foreign magazines. Four photographers, including three students, worked permanently on the campus. Among them two used a motion lens (the equivalent to a zoom lens) to create motion pictures6, a kind of popular portrait highly sought after by Nigerian students.
Much had changed in 25 years, starting with the colour photo boom. No longer could photographers master the roster of photographic techniques ranging from the actual studio shoot to work in the darkroom. They had to entrust their work to laboratories. At the risk of confronting the outdoor photographers on their hunting grounds, the more valiant among them were leaving their studios to canvas customers in offices, schools, churches and mosques. And since man lives by hope, each and every one dreamed of opening the first colour laboratory in Ila-Orangun.
1. Stephen F. Sprague (1942-1979) was a documentary photographer and filmmaker. He taught at Purdue University, where each year in his memory the university awards Stephen F. Sprague Memorial Award for Excellence in Photography. He had planned to return to Nigeria to write a book on Yoruba photography.
2. Sprague, S. F. 1978. “Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves.” African Arts 12 (1): 52-59, 107. Sprague published two more articles the same year on Ila-Orangun photographers, each entitled “How I See the Yoruba See Themselves.” One was published in Exposure 16 (3): 16-29 and the other in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 5 (1): 9-28.
4. I was conducting research on the spread of professional photography in West Africa through the Yoruba diaspora. See Nimis, E. 2005. Photographes d’Afrique de l’Ouest: l’Expérience Yoruba. Paris: Karthala, and Nimis, E. 2013. « Yoruba Studio Photographers in Francophone West Africa », in J. Peffer & E.L. Cameron (ed.), Portraiture and Photography in Africa, Indiana Press University, 102-140.
5. The first version of the article by Sprague for African Arts should have been entitled “Sir Special Photo: How the Yoruba See Themselves.” Indeed, Sir Special had provided him with a good number of the shots on which he had conducted his study.
6. Nimis, E. 2001. “Motion Pictures in Nigeria.” Visual Anthropology 14 (3): 293-299. Telephoto lenses tend to decrease perspective, resulting in a blurred background that places the emphasis on the subject on which the lens is focused.