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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week Peuple de la Nuit Photographs by Sanlé Sory Reviewed by Blake Andrews Peuple de la Nuit is a tribute to the people who posed with cheery abandon, for the lens of Sanlé Sory from 1960 to 1983. While Sory spent days at his Volta Photo studio in southern Burkina Faso, his nights were spent capturing a flourishing music scene, youth culture, dance parties, weddings and portraits of his home city.
Peuple de la Nuit. By Sanlé Sory.
Peuple de la Nuit  
Photographs by Sanlé Sory

Stanley/Barker, London, United Kingdom, 2019.
88 pp., black-and-white illustrations, 10¾x10¾".

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A photographer’s lifework is discovered by a curatorial champion. Their work gains attention overnight. The photographer is plucked from obscurity and joins the canon as an A-Lister. The recent case of Vivian Maier and John Maloof is fresh on everyone’s minds. But even before her ascendance, the pattern had repeated many times. Gary Stochl’s discovery by Bob Thall, Mike Disfarmer’s discovery by Peter Miller, Malick Sidibé’s discovery by Françoise Hugier, E.J. Bellocq’s discovery by Lee Friedlander, Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s discovery by Charles Rado, Eugene Atget’s discovery by Berenice Abbot, and so on.

Les Deux AMI 8, 1975. By Sanlé Sory.
To the list, we can now add Ibrahima Sanlé Sory—or Sanlé Sory, as he’s listed as author of the new monograph from Stanley Barker, Peuple de la Nuit. Or perhaps it’s Sory Sanlé, the reverse naming used in several recent articles? Regardless of moniker, he was born in 1943, apprenticed with Ghanaian photographer Kodjo Ademako, then began photographing his home city of Bobo-Dioulasso in 1960, the very year Burkino Faso (then known as Upper Volta) declared its independence. He opened his own photo studio, followed by a steady commercial career shooting locally. Sory was talented. Yes. But celebrated? Not so much, at least not outside of the region.

That all changed six years ago, thanks largely to the efforts of Florent Mazzoleni, a French music producer who noticed the nice portraiture on a few obscure African album covers and began digging. One thing led to another. Soon enough Mazzoleni found himself at Sory’s doorstep, arriving just as the old master—then in his 70s—was burning a pile of unwanted negatives. Hold it!

Yacouba Zero, 1970. By Sanlé Sory.

Fortunately, most of Sory’s archive remained intact. It was a massive oeuvre, mostly from the 1960s through 1980s, a mix of studio portraits, commercial/editorial work, and self-assigned reportage accessed by roving motorbike. “I was just in the right place at the right time,” Sanlé said in a later interview. “I saw how countryside traditions mingled with modern city life. People were eager for – I couldn’t help but see that through my lens.” He’d captured a snapshot of an era, one relatively unknown to the outside world. All it required was a bit of TLC. With Mazzoleni’s help, Sory whipped his archive into shape. A website and film followed (both by Mazzoleni), then a steady upward trajectory of shows, books, articles, and increased interest among collectors. Yossi Milo, David Hill, The Art Institute of Chicago…

Valse à Bobo, 1968. By Sanlé Sory.
Which brings us to Peuple De La Nuit. In contrast to past, broader efforts, this book winnows the focus to just a small sliver of the Sory pie, the free-spirited denizens of the Bobo-Dioulasso night club scene. This was a culture of dancing, flamboyant outfits, and buoyant mood, all set amid a rather stark physical environment of brick and stucco. Judging by Sory’s photos, he made himself at home there, shooting freely, and setting his subjects at ease. Most of them pose casually for the camera. Some are caught in candid reverie. All seem relaxed and natural, happy to be photographed before carrying on into the night. It’s a feel-good book, with a celebratory joie de vivre that is infectious.

Sory had a direct photographic style. There’re no fancy juxtas or games, just subjects centered in the frame. Although his bright flash provided plenty of light, he often opened up the aperture to limit the depth of field, and its sometimes haphazard placement in the frame adds a dynamism lacking with today’s high ISO infinite DOF capabilities. The straight portraits carry the weight of the photos. But it’s the small details that push them over the top. Bell-bottom pants and beehive headgear keep the eyes roving, while a never-ending variety of hand gestures keeps the mind guessing. Odd posters taped to walls—The Beatles? White bra models? Porn shots?—raise questions about the racial dynamics of idolatry.

Le trois cowboys de la brousse, 1971. By Sanlé Sory.

The simple fact is that for a contemporary Western audience, these photos show a largely unknown time and place. So there’s a vacuum aspect at play, as we greedily suck up information from within the frames. Ah, so those are the plants of Burkino Faso, and the utility poles, and the containers? The small facts come in a steady deluge. But the best are the photos so bizarre that they defy easy ingestion. Pictures like Le trois cowboys de la brousse, 1971; Le amoureux timides, 1975; and Laissez-moi entrer!, 1967 are just plain ineffable (even for French speakers). Their exoticism might invite comparisons to the famous Malian portraitists Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Their triumphant gaze might recall the best of Kwame Brathwaite. But perhaps a better comparison—career arc and all—can be found on the other end of the continent, in the odd night-club shenanigans captured by Billy Monk in South Africa.

L'équilibriste, 1972. By Sanlé Sory.
There’ve been a few books already of Sory’s photos (and probably more to come). Peuple de la Nuit is merely the latest. But it stands above the crowd for a few reasons. As I mentioned above, the edit hews closely to one specific subject. But the big difference is in the production. Stanley Barker’s dark, luscious tones—snatched from the contrasty night, like his subjects—are perfectly suited to the subject matter. I also love the unusual typeface used in text and captions throughout. I can’t identify it, except that it’s thick, bubbly and leans strangely left. Inset this font into a burnt orange cover and you’ve got one heckuva beautiful typographical diversion. The odd typeface then carries over inside, to the introduction and photo captions. It’s atypical, unsettling, and thoughtful. As are the photos. As is the book.

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Surprise party en ville. 1974. By Sanlé Sory.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at