French photographer Edmond Fortier (1862-1928) lived most of his life in Dakar, Senegal. He produced about 4,000 images of West Africa in the early twentieth century. A selection of these photographs will be on display at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, in São Paulo, in the period between November 25, 2015 and January 25, 2016, at the largest exhibition ever dedicated to this photographer: “Edmond Fortier – Viagem a Timbutku” (Edmond Fortier – A Trip to Timbuktu). On the opening night of the exhibition, a book named after it (Literart Publishers) will be launched, by historian Daniela Moreau, whose research work has led to the exhibition.
Edmond Fortier’s exceptional quality photographic work is still little known in Europe and Africa. A Brazilian historian specialist in African conducted pioneering work: she put together all of the works of Fortier, which can now be known by the public.
Edmond Fortier – Viagem a Timbutku focuses on a remarkable cutout of Fortier’s production, gathering 200 photos of the over-five-thousand-kilometer trip he made into the African continent in 1906, at a time when the imposition of colonial regimes in Africa was still relatively recent. The climax of this trip was the historical city of Timbuktu, the doorway to Sahara (in the north of current Mali), at the time deemed mysterious and impenetrable by Europeans. “He was one of the first professionals to photograph the city after the French occupation in 1894. Djenné, on the banks of Bani River, the oldest city in all of sub-Saharan Africa, was also subject of his records. The known images of this itinerary are unique testimony of that time”, says Moreau.
Edmond Fortier started working as a photographer in Senegal in the late nineteenth century, making portraits of African elite and European settlers. It was the time of cartes-de-visite (postcards), an epoch-making fashion, also in Brazil. Taking pictures for cartes-de-visite was the was the livelihood of thousands of photographers around the world.
In the early twentieth century, the fever of the moment changed and became the postcards. Millions of postcards with photos of all places of the globe were printed each year. They circulated as correspondence and were collected in albums by families.
It was this new trend in the photo market – the so-called illustrated postcards – which allowed the support of Edmond Fortier for nearly three decades. He would publish new series of postcards every year and sell them to tourists (since at that time all ships that connected Europe to South America did stop in Dakar) and to European settlers in his small shop next to the port of the city. Despite their commercial success, Edmond Fortier’s photos eventually were forgotten as their negatives were never found.
Today, more than 100 years after they were recorded, those images of West Africa are a real cultural heritage to be redeemed and known. The postcards depict the everyday life of ordinary people, landscapes and popular festivals. Fortier documented what would then immediately disappear forever, such as the ruins of the old mosque of Djenné, and what was in their early stages, as modern urban aspects of Bamako and Conakry, Mali and Guinea capital cities, respectively. His photographs have played an important role in the construction of the imaginary on the African “other”.
He produced, among other genres, numerous portraits of African women with bare breasts, which represented the exotic and an appeal to European customers. Intense and violent transformations marked by the penetration and increased presence of European settlers in West Africa have also been captured through the lens of Edmond Fortier.
“Fortier was not a military officer, missionary or exporter, the occupations of most Europeans present in Senegal at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was a foreigner who chose to live in Africa as a photographer. And the postcards created and sold by him were his work. An indefatigable traveler, he covered a large area of West Africa between 1900 and 1912, visiting 100 localities of seven countries now known as Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Mauritania, Mali, Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria”, highlights Daniela Moreau, who authors the book.