Walker Evans famously chose as the first image in his "American Photographs" a picture of a New York photo studio. "Photos in 5 min" the signs say, and the painted forefingers of two opposing hands point to the entrance. Evans, one of the great American artists of the 20th century, was tipping his hat to those photographers — not great artists — who cranked out studio portraits to support themselves. One such photographer far from New York was Lazhar Mansouri (1932–85), an Algerian whose "Portraits of a Village: 1950–70" is currently on display at the Westwood Gallery.
Mansouri lived in Aïn Beïda (Aurés), an inland village to the far east of Algeria, almost at the border with Tunisia. As a child, he met a photographer who had a studio in back of a grocery store off the local market street. He worked for this man, learned the craft of photography, and when his apprenticeship was done, set up his own studio in the back of a barbershop. Some of the pictures at Westwood were taken when Mr. Mansouri was as young as 18; the rest were taken over the next three decades, until he closed his studio for fear of the changed political climate. He considered burning his negatives, but another photographer saved them. The prints on display at Westwood are all about 11 inches by 14 inches and were made recently. The original prints would have been much smaller, and what has happened to either the customers or their portraits in the intervening years is not likely a happy story.
Many of the subjects wear what I take to be the traditional Arab garb of that region. Image 13 is of an attractive woman in her 20s with black hair that flows over her shoulders and down toward her waist. She sits with her hands on her crossed knees on a stool next to one of Mansouri's standard studio props, a little stand made of simulated bamboo and covered with plastic flowers of several generic varieties. She squares up to the camera lens with a determined stare, but much of the interest in the picture is in what she is wearing; a dress of some heavy, dark material with elaborate embroidery (probably with metallic thread) around the neck and hem, worn over a blouse with wide sleeves of white lace. There are embroidered sandals, four ornate bracelets, a necklace, and a regal tiara.
Images 21 and 51 are of women in similar outfits. In image 12, a woman stands amid plastic flowers and a painted column with her hands on the heads of two children, while a third youngster picks his nose. The same props figure in image 47, with three girls in beautifully embroidered robes standing with their father, who wears a plain white robe over a white shirt and striped tie. The pictures of greatest ethnographic interest, though, are the portraits of Berber women, images 40 to 44. The faces of these women are tattooed on their foreheads, cheeks, and chins. The tattooing is tribal, and the women gaze out at us from a deep recess in history, from where time stands still. It took great delicacy for Mansouri to photograph them because, as he tells us, "for some of them it is the first time when they are without veil in front of a man they are not related to."
But most of his subjects wear an incredible mélange of contemporary Western outfits. Of the men in the first six pictures, no. 1 wears a shiny leather motorcycle jacket, leather breeches, and knee-high boots, and has a silver whistle dangling from an epaulette. No. 2 poses in front of a cardboard crescent moon with a star in its horns; he wears military fatigues and aviator glasses, and holds up a machine gun. The two young men behind the stand of plastic flowers in 3 appear to be in academic gowns worn over shirts and ties; they have stylishly trimmed sideburns. No. 4 is in a khaki policeman's uniform, with a peaked cap, white gloves with gauntlets to his elbows, and a white Sam Browne belt with shoulder straps; he stands with his machine gun held at his hip.
It is modern times in Aïn Beïda.
The man in no. 5 must be working out; he stands without a shirt, but with his gut sucked in and his muscles flexed. And in 6, the man on the right wears a dark policeman's uniform with a pistol in a holster, the man on the left wears a sports jacket and white T-shirt, and the one in the middle … he is swaddled in rags like a "street crazy," but smokes a pipe and appears sane. The little boy by the plastic flowers in 34 is dressed in white, with huge "shades," a wristwatch, and a Western guitar as big as he is. In 20, two young women, probably sisters, pose in street clothes on either side of their father, a man in an open double-breasted jacket who stands with his eyes down on the newspaper he holds in his hands. How odd!
In the decades Lazhar Mansouri worked, Algeria was racked by revolution; since then a savage civil war took between 150,000 and 200,000 lives. It is impossible that his clients — these individuals tossed up promiscuously from oblivion — were not affected.
Walker Evans understood the power of studio photos. A half century later, there is an appreciation of studio photos as a genre worthy of attention. Mansouri's portraits do not have the psychological acuity of those Mike Disfarmer took in Heber Springs, Ark., or the visual rhythms of those Seydou Keita took in Bamako, Mali, but they give us an affecting look at the citizens of a village in Algeria before the killing began in earnest.
Until May 12 (568 Broadway, between Prince and Houston streets, 212-925-5700).