Seydou Keïta was born around 1921 in Bamako, then the capital of French Sudan. He was the eldest of five siblings, and became a carpenter’s apprentice alongside his father at the age of 7. In 1935, his uncle gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie Flash, which launched his professional career. Keïta was self-taught, but fortunate to receive guidance from teacher-turned-photographer Mountaga Dembélé, who initiated him into the techniques of developing film, as well as Pierre Garnier, a French pioneer of commercial photography in Mali.
In 1948, Keïta opened his studio on a plot of family-owned land in Bamako-Coura, a new and very busy quarter of the city, near the train station and other popular spots. He produced most of his portraits in the studio’s courtyard, using natural light and often with a single shot, using various printed backgrounds that would later help to establish the year when the photographs were taken. From 1948 to 1962, Keïta ran Bamako’s most famous studio, where an essentially urban clientele would flock to pose alone, as a couple, a family, or among friends.