It is difficult to pick one point to start with when considering the work of Seydo Keita. The article in the Times touches on many of the issues contributing to the rise in value of his photographs as an art commodity, but asks nothing about what drives the excitement for this work. Comparing Keita’s work to Rembrant has got to be one of the most ridiculous assertions that anyone could make. It is patently obvious that the task of painting even a poor imitation of Rembrant would be far more difficult to accomplish than it would be to make most photographs. Keitas work, naive and humble was made “….outside any aesthetic discourse” but it was made inside for a specific and utilitarian objective, to make photographic likenesses of his subjects. That was his job, and he did it in a workmanlike manner, nothing more. If one were to make comparisons to an artist of the european or western culture, why not choose the work of a photographer, instead of a painter? Look at the portraiture of Arnold Newman whose work unfortunately does not figure prominently in today’s hot art market. Long acknowledged as a master (Like a Rembrant) in the history of photography( a separate precinct from the history of art ), Newman also did photography for hire. Unlike Keita, his understanding of the medium was deep and intuitive. His sensibility was consistent but inventive; each subject would be photographed in a manner that both described the sitters’ appearance, an evocation of the sitters’ personality and the vision of Arnold Newman. Keita’s work has no subtlety or invention. He presents us with nothing more than the description of the sitters and the fabrics in which they are dressed or posed against. To our first world eyes, no doubt, we perceive a quaintness and exoticism, but I can’t see Keita showed any great awareness for doing anything more than making the photograph. There is hardly any variation in the expression of the sitters. All of the poses are similar, and only the distance to the sitter was altered. He used a variety of backgrounds, but beyond that there simply is little exemplary about his photographs. Viewers find a lot to be intrigued with, not the least being the ethnographic information. But this work is far short of Rembrant or Newman.
A more apt reference to compare Keitos work is to that of a small town photography studio in America. In fact a small town American photographer, Mike Disfarmer, was “discovered” and brought to prominence. The images of Disfarmer and Keita have much in common, and seem to appeal to viewers in the same way. There is, as most people realize, a quality of nostalgia encapsulated in photographs, and as photographs get older, they become more interesting. The nature of this interest does seem to be wired into the human psyche, and anything that is older than being simply out of date becomes more appealing, and later talismanic. The flea market would be the base camp of commodification of the old, and a museum such as the Metropolitan would be the summit of value. Since, in some ways the most banal old object is redolent of some essence from the time in which it was made, we find it intrinsically interesting and evocative. Consider a 1964 Ford Falcon, an automobile, undistinguished in any way at the time of its manufacture. It was plain and basic, but no doubt loved by those for whom this was the new car that they could afford. I doubt that there were many who did not trade it in as soon as possible for a newer and better car. That car, used, would serve another owner or subsequent owners until such time as it was sold or destroyed. Yet a few of these cars survived, and when we see one on the street, in new condition, we are likely to spend at least a few minutes contemplating it as an engaging artifact. Everything about this object would resonate in our minds- whether we saw this car new in 1964 or for the first time in 2006. Now consider the 1964 Ferrari 275 P, which would represent a high point in automotive design and engineering in 1964. To our eyes in 2006, both cars are artifacts that generate interest. Are they now of equal stature and significance simply because they evoke the sensibilities of another time? While the original owner of the Ferrari, may too, have replaced it in a year or two, an appreciation for this car probably accompanied its entire existence. I imagine that the excitement generated by this car in 1964 would be comparable to the excitement that it creates today. The same could not be said about the Ford.
If the Ford contains 1964, so too does a photograph made in 1964. It contains 1964 through the encapsulation of details and specificity to be found in that year, possibly that Ford or Ferrari, or fashion particular to that time. Were we to examine two photographs (made with materials unchanged over the years), of a subject that gave no visual cues as to time, I submit that a viewer could not establish the time when either image was made. It is that detail from the past which intrigues us. Keita’s and Disfarmer’s photographs bring us the past and the exotically unfamiliar. But this kind of work brings it to us with all of the evocation of a Ford. By considering the mind, eye and sensibility inherent in a created object we can consider if the work belongs in the Met or at a Flea market. By comparing two photographs of a a timeless subject, we could make a distinction between a compelling image and a merely descriptive photograph. With photography, we must make a distinction between what is being shown and how it is being shown..
Another issue worth examining is print size and quality. Keita’s work was originally contact printed from the camera negatives, meaning that the prints were small. When introduced to the art world the work was exhibited as Jumbo sized, rich high contrast black and white prints. Any photograph can be printed in any size; it’s only a matter of cost. That scale is important in art is obvious, but to take undistinguished works, blow them up to the size of paintings and to do so with masterful tonality and range is to transform the work of Keita to simply the product of a great photography laboratory. This was a totally market driven production, and has nothing whatever to do with the vision of an artist. Collectors upset about how many prints were made are concerned only for their investment. There was nothing authentic in the decision to make the prints large, and it matters not how many are in the edition.