The images first appeared on Instagram in May 2020, one by one, like those mythic radio waves from a long-lost galaxy, a world light years away, yet still fresh, its music still spinning. Initially they were slightly woozy and sepia-tinged, their subjects, young sapeurs and sapeuses, standing, bell-bottomed, midriff-bared, hands on hips, posed against a patterned floor and backdrop, framed in vertical rectangles. Then came the clubgoers, musicians, and families swathed in fabrics, and then the full-frame, square images with the forceful graphic style for which their photographer, Maurice “Pellosh” Bidilou, and his Studio B. Maurice Pellosh Photo, were much sought after.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Studio Pellosh, as it became known, in Pointe-Noire, Congo, was the place to be. The studio exists no more, but the photographer is one of the rare modern African masters still living — until recently in obscurity.
Bidilou’s pictures might have remained invisible were it not for the efforts of Emmanuèle Béthery, a French curator who represents Congolese painters and ran an association for them in Pointe-Noire. She had been curious about local photographers and in 2018 was introduced to Bidilou. He was still in the coastal city, living with his wife and several analog cameras in a home that was half sand and half concrete, with intermittent electricity. His negatives were moldering, damaged by humidity, thinning of silver, and eaten by mice and termites. Béthery spent an hour with Bidilou before her return to Paris — with a single vintage image. It would be almost a year and a half before Béthery could go back to Pointe-Noire, where she sat for two weeks, with a loop and a negatoscope, often in the dark, as Bidilou shared his deteriorating Kodak boxes and story.
Bidilou, now 70, was born in Bouansa, Congo-Brazza, between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, the second of six siblings. His mother worked the fields (still women’s labor in Congo); his father, a warehouseman, loaded freight cars. Maurice only attended elementary school. He gave himself the nickname Pellosh simply for its sound. It would prove prescient: Pelloche in French refers to a strip of film. He expressed no artistic inclinations, though his childhood friend Dieudonné Pandi told Béthery, “He was extremely skillful and succeeded with the first shot in killing the birds with the slingshot and was the village champion with marbles.”
As Béthery would discover, most of Bidilou’s images were achieved in only one take per customer. Said Bidilou, via email (through a friend who ran the email to the photographer and responded on his behalf): “Usually one was enough to get the right photo. The film was expensive, and I was careful. Above all, I knew when to press!”
At age 17, Bidilou went to live with a brother in Pointe-Noire. He stumbled to find a calling. His uncle took the initiative to apprentice him to the black-and-white portrait studio Jeanot Père in January 1971; in exchange, Père was handed a “dowry” of a chicken, a jug of wine, and approximately 20,000 CFA (francs of the French colonies in Africa) — about two dollars today.
Bidilou trained for 20 months, learning all aspects of studio photography, from lighting, to running a studio, to darkroom printing. In 1973, he purchased his first camera, a Yashica 6×6 from France. He left for the Mayombé massif, where he practiced his trade, wandering from village to village over 11 months, equipment on his back, making pictures and ID photos that he printed by night in the chief’s hut with his Luciole firefly oil lamp.
Soon Bidilou had saved enough to open Studio Pellosh. His location — near the market, the Rex cinema, the mosque, trendy bars like Chez Fofo, and at the edge of the monied colonial quartier — drew a lot of traffic. At the end of the day, Bidilou would slip from the studio to photograph the area’s active nightlife.
In 1960, on August 15 — Pellosh’s birthday — Congo was liberated from France, the country that had held it as a colony since 1882. In the decades following, the frisson of postcolonial freedom filled the air, and Pellosh captured the electricity and exhale in his frame. There are images of lovers French kissing, of sapeurs holding hands. One image depicts three young women, friends, standing comfortably, if not defiantly, before the camera clad in white lingerie. In another, a man stands beneath a sign reading “TOTAL” wearing dark shades and a neat abacost, near a Citroen DS, the ultimate French status symbol. “Les Communiantes”(1975), a feat of printmaking, depicts two girls, communicants, clasping their rosaries before them, the details of a white eyelet dress and their Black faces both remarkably visible against a lush black background. Some of the square images were cropped to rectangles to simulate a 35-millimeter photo; others Bidilou imprinted in French with sayings such as “Nuit et Jour Ma Pensée Vers Toi (Night and Day I Think of You),” a trend at the time.
Studio Pellosh was also frequented by le Sape — ordinary people who emulated le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society of Ambiance Makers and Elegant People), a subculture distinguished by their sharp dressing. Le Sape began in Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazza, inspired by dandies in Congo’s Roaring ’20s.
Studio Pellosh images were much coveted despite their expense. Bernard Bioka Bongo would often spend time there with his two friends, and the trio appeared in Bidilou’s “Trois de Chocs” (1977). About making the photo, Bongo said:
It was a memorable time, we were under 20, and it was a very happy youth. Everything made sense; life was carefree but also serious. During the holidays, there was such a crowd at Studio Pellosh that we also wanted to go there to take pictures that were always more beautiful and sought after. It was a real pleasure to dress like princes! On the day of this photo, I remember my tie was red.
Africans established photo studios in the continent’s capitals as early as 1853, and also plied their trade along the coasts’ port cities. The photographers’ work was less about art than income, though art did result. But little is known about the making of these pictures, and of the relationship between photographer and subject. Research has been only recently mining existing images for their coded signs: poses, props, hairstyles, colonial watches, and mise-en-scène. Bidilou’s subjects were often eager to flaunt Western clothes. But African fabric, such as worn by the reclining couple in his 1974 portrait “Couchés(Lying Down)” — and for which once a man’s life would be traded — is itself encoded: Its print, the way it is cut and/or wrapped (particularly around the head) … all possess meaning. Bidilou’s position as a living photographer among living subjects, with a surviving archive (and a curator), makes him an invaluable resource.
Bidilou only recently, through Béthery, learned of the work of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. And while he acknowledged similarities, his pictures are also quite different from the ones made by the Malian masters. Despite their shared graphic qualities, Keïta’s are far more formal and still. Bidilou’s photos share Sidibé’s embodiment of street energy and youth culture, but at the same time were released from Islam’s hold on society and imagery — and from Sidibé’s more academic training.Like Sidibé’s, his subjects were often smiling (a rarity in earlier African photography) and his studio filled with props — an array of the latest purses, motos, and radios, a means to signal status and being branché, or “plugged in.” Yet in Bidilou’s pictures there is also the palpable interplay — and playful interaction — between photographer and subject and the sense of a narrative at work.
“Depending on who came,” Bidilou said to me via email, “I proposed ‘amorous’ or ‘relaxed’ poses when it was groups of friends. For a soldier or a graduate, more strict poses were needed. I was also the one who offered the accessories, but very often the customer also knew what he wanted, such as a motorcycle or a fashionable bag.” Symmetry (and sometimes the commentary of asymmetry) plays a strong role in his pictures, along with patterning (including Western plaids), and light and shadow.
The introduction of smaller, faster, more pocketable and affordable “instant” cameras, and the rapidity and bulk with which their film could be processed, meant the slow death of studios like Pellosh’s. The photographer contemplated a move to Brazzaville in 1993 to increase his clientele, but a bitter civil war, centered around the city, was simmering. Bidilou remained in Pointe-Noire, which was largely untouched. Congo’s infrastructure — its roads, electricity, and access to photo chemicals and paper — broke down. The White elite had left with their money; the state bureaucracy collapsed; and the two civil wars that ravaged the country in the 1990s delivered the final blows. Bidilou’s color work lacked the impact of his black-and-white portraits. In the ensuing decades the expense of digital processes (with the requisite camera, computer, software, and hard drives) — in addition to the lack of reliable electricity — made continuing photography impossible for most photographers in the Congo, including Bidilou. He closed Studio Pellosh in 2010; none of his digital files remain.
On Béthery’s second goodbye to Bidilou, in 2019, she carried some 8,000 negatives, unsure what could be saved. Back in Paris, Stéphane Cormier, photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s printer, pronounced the majority miraculously cleanable and restorable. Had Béthery met Bidilou later, it’s likely most of his work would have been lost.
Cormier’s silver prints of Bidilou’s images slowly populated and sold on Studio Pellosh’s Instagram, and after 13 months, Béthery was able to bring Bidilou 9,000 euros (an unheard of sum for Congo) and renewed stature. She staged a small Paris exhibition of his work late fall 2020 that was attended by a Congolese journalist who recognized the three friends in Bidilou’s portrait and put Béthery in touch. Logistically, and given the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible for Bidilou to receive a visa to attend the show; indeed, the photographer has never left Congo. Béthery had hoped for an opening in Pointe-Noire, so the images’ subjects might see themselves in the photos, but the pandemic prevented that.
Bidilou was recovering from a bout of malaria and a hospital stay when my interview questions arrived. When asked if he thought of shooting again, he responded, “With the disappearance of products, papers, films, developers, and fixers, it is impossible to shoot photos in Congo-Brazza. Of course, if there were all these products again, I would immediately go back to my darkroom.”
The French photo community is both quite closed and guarded largely by men, and as a non-Parisian, a newcomer, and a woman, it can be a struggle for Béthery to be taken seriously, despite her reputation among painters. (“There isn’t a red carpet,” she said.) Of her work on Bidilou’s archive, Béthery said emphatically, “It’s my duty.” The images remain the photographer’s property; through sales Béthery covers expenses — of printing, for instance — but doesn’t receive payment herself. Yet the pictures Béthery, and her son Noé Blarez-Béthery, are posting on social media are slowly revealing Bidilou’s art to international admirers. She is now developing a book and a documentary.
Today, in Pointe-Noire, the Rex is now a Pentecostal church. Studio Pellosh has become a hair salon. The surrounding neighborhood has fallen into disrepair. But Bidilou’s images remain to reflect the esprit of those earlier, vibrant years — and of the people, transcendent, within their frames. Explained Bidilou, “When I took the pictures, I strived to be the best photographer. I felt the moment when I had to press the shutter. I didn’t learn — I intuitively felt when people would be the most beautiful.”
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