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Michel Campeau
A Marooned Workshop

Michel Campeau
A Marooned Workshop

Niamey, Niger, 17th March 2008. This morning, Michel Campeau has a meeting with Stephen Oni, at the photography studio Lumière, address Rond-Point Liberté, departure point for a voyage into the secret treasure trove of photographs of the Sahelian capital. Niamey is still home to a good hundred of these studios, abandoned, but still functional, where the darkroom remains the centrepiece, protected from prying eyes and reserved for those who understand it. This room is also the source of many a fantasy on the part of outsiders, who once went as far as to associate it with the practice of black magic.

The darkroom, it is true, is a well-guarded place, one which does not reveal itself easily. You enter it either by a concealed door or by crossing the backyard. How to reveal the secrets which surround this blind room, instantly recognizable by the acrid, sweaty odour which it seems to give off?

Like an archaeologist armed with his brush – his digital camera – Michel Campeau intends to reveal, one by one, at the press of a shutter, these dust-buried relics which the artist has poetically called photographs of Silver Sahel. The enlargers are worn-out but resist valiantly, while the vats, eaten away at by corrosive chemicals, are still serviceable and the red lamp still functions with the energy of a survivor. Intensive sessions of development have not got the better of this niama-niama¹, according to a photographer’s witticism… A niama-niama of great poetic value, a true Plaything of the Poor, as Baudelaire called his poem.

The workshops of Niamey hold in their thoughts memories rooted in a bygone golden age, that of the studio, of its painted decor and obsolete hearts, of its homemade lighting, of its darkroom and its eternal accomplice, the Krokus², which no digital printer would be able to dethrone. The talent of the master photographer gleaned from his long years of apprenticeship, will always be shown by his prowess in the darkroom, even if this talent is now revealed only through a handful of passport pictures.

The darkrooms of Niamey, today deserted and silent, still retain the imprint of that auspicious era when the same gestures, the same rituals, were repeated incessantly: a few rolls of dusty negatives hanging on a thread, the stack of boxes of paper, the marks of wear and tear on the blue walls. Now that the shipwreck is irreversible and the dust of the Harmattan has invaded everywhere, even going as far as to eradicate photography, these smudged walls have become the most tangible traces of long, sleepless nights spent in the darkroom. The kings of photography have taken their leave.

¹ The term niama-niama (from Mandenkan, a language spoken in West Africa) is used mainly in oral settings, as it is informal and pejorative. It designates a heterogeneous jumble of small objects of no value, sometimes even rubbish.
² The Krokus is a Polish make of enlarger that was in very widespread use in West Africa from 1960–1980.

Artist: Michel Campeau is a photo artist who lives and works in Montreal. In 1994 he received the Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Prize (Hokkaido, Japan). The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography held a retrospective of his work in 1996 entitled Eloquent Images (1971–1996), and he was selected by Martin Parr for a group show entitled New Typologies at the New York Photo Festival in May 2008. His series Darkroom, edited by Martin Parr, was published in 2007 for Nazraeli Press. His work is found in numerous public and private collections, and he is represented by Galerie Simon Blais.

Writer: Erika Nimis is the author of many articles and three books on West African photography. In 2003 she received her PhD in African history for her thesis Photographes d’Afrique de l’Ouest – L’expérience Yoruba from the University of Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paris. It was published in 2005 by Karthala in Paris and IFRA in Ibadan. She is also the co-founder of the association Afriques Nouvelles Images, which bridges the Africas and the Americas via photographic exhibitions and projection-debates. She has been teaching African history for the past two years at Laval University (Quebec City) and University of Quebec in Montreal. She was Michel Campeau’s assistant in Niamey.