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Remembering Malick Sidibe Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

15 April 2016

He was born in a small village in the west African country of Mali in 1935 when it was still a French colony. As a peasant he began herding sheep at the age of 5, cattle at the age of 8 and then worked the land. He pointed out in an interview that "they say that if you raise animals you are a good peasant, because animals provide good organic fertilizer."

As World War II was ending, Sidibe was sent to school. It was obligatory and though his father had promised to send him to the white school, he kept putting it off until the village chief insisted he send at least one of his many children to school. That one was Malick.

At school he started to draw. "There is a certain pride in imitating nature," he explained. He became so good at it that he was doing drawings for official events before he entered high school.

'I found that the camera was a lot faster than a paintbrush.'

His drawings for offical events impressed the local Major who sent him to the School of Sudanese Craftsmen in the capital Bamako.

In 1955, he became an apprentice at Gérard Guillat-Guignard's Photo Service Boutique after decorating the studio for him. Guillat-Guignard, impressed with his drawings, asked him if he'd like to be a photographer. Sidibe leapt at the chance.

"I found that the camera was a lot faster than a paintbrush. So I threw myself into photography and that's how I became a photographer."

He bought his first camera, a Brownie Flash, the next year. A small camera with a flash was a rarity at the time and a valuable asset for photographing the local youth. He was invited to take pictures at every dance.

In 1958 Sidibe opened Studio Malick in Bamako. But he didn't shoot studio portraits. Instead, he hit the streets, photographing night life, concerts, the beach. When Mali gained independence in 1960, he was ready with his 35mm camera to capture the new mood of Mali's youth.

Some nights he had 300 or 400 hundreds photos to process and print. The prints, hung outside the studio, were immensely popular with the young males, who were proud to be seen dancing with a woman, something that was simply not done before.

In the 1970s he began making studio portraits with a Rollieflex when he installed electricity in his studio. He used the sense of composition he had developed from his drawing to pose his subjects, who enjoyed the informal sessions.

The Rollieflex had another advantage. Unlike the plate cameras other studio photographers used, the image appeared right side up. This saved him one day when a female subject started screaming at him. She was sure that his viewfinder (like ground glass of the plate cameras) was showing her upside down, with her dress tumbling over her torso and revealing her naked. He was able to show her that she was right side up in his viewfinder. And then he took her photo.

He used a number of cameras over the years. And was something of a collector. A habit which served him well when it came to archiving his images, a habit he acquired at the Photo Service Boutique as a boy.

His work ranged from photojournalism to fashion without ever labeling him as either a photojournalist or fashion photographer.

Fame came late to him but it wasn't shy. He won the Hasselblad Award for photography in 2003, was the first African to win the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and in 2008 won the Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Internation Center of Photography.

Fame did not change him, though. Sidibe could still be found at Studio Malick.

Only death could prevent him from doing what he loved to do.

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