The Best Books to Give This Year: Photography

Luc Sante, The New York Times Book Review, December 6, 2020


"Samuel Fosso fled Nigeria in 1970, aged 8, as a consequence of the Biafran War, and landed in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, where several years later he began apprenticing for a studio photographer. Less than a year after that, at 13, he opened his own studio: passport pictures, school portraits, family parties. Fosso was a born artist, however, and he immediately began experimenting after hours, using himself as his subject. His "70's Lifestyle" series, begun in 1975 as self-portraits to send to his grandmother, soon evolved into a protracted study of the science of posing. With textured backdrops and lighting that inevitably bring to mind the great Malian portraitists Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, Fosso employed clothing, props, his alert features and dramatic mastery of body language to cast himself in a variety of roles, stances, personas: the spectrum of African youth of his time.

He went on to color film, elaborate costumes and historical reconstructions, from "Le Rêve de Mon Grand-Père" - a magical-realist evocation of his ancestral legacy - to "African Spirits," in which he impersonates everyone from Angela Davis and Malcolm X to Haile Selassie and Léopold Sédar Senghor. His early ventures roughly coincided with Cindy Sherman's, and while they surely did not know of each other then, there is a definite commonality of expression between them, a mix of photography, theater and mise-en-scène.

SAMUEL FOSSO: Autoportrait (Walther Collection/Steidl/D.A.P., 188 pp., $85), edited by Okwui Enwezor, displays the sweep of his work, culminating in "SIXSIXSIX" (2015), in which he photographed his face, uncostumed and propless, for four weeks, documenting a grand tour of his emotions, nuanced and vivid."