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A tribute to Maurice Pellosh, the great Congolese photographer

From 1973 to the mid-90s, Maurice Pellosh took pictures of people from every walk of life: the flower of Pointe-Noire, families, jolly fellows, ‘sapeurs’, employees, pairs of lovers – all of them wanting to have their picture taken. Emmanuèle Béthery, the curator, who has been highlighting artists off the beaten track for over 15 years now, has recently organised the display of Pellosh' works, focusing on the 1970s and 1980s, when people were hopeful and cheerful as independence had been newly acquired.

By: Emmanuèle Béthery

In 2019, Emmanuèle Béthery crossed Pellosh’s path in Pointe-Noire for the first time and was immediately attracted to his personality and to the yellowed and jagged pictures that he presented to her as many fragile and moving signs of bygone happy days.

She returned to Congo with a negatoscope in her bag. In the moisture of yet another rainy season she and Pellosh dug out heaps of Kodak boxes damaged by mold and containing thousands of 6x6 negatives. Then a myriad of faces appeared from the past – young ones and not so young ones, lovers’ looks, incredible shots of ‘sapeurs’... Convinced that she had found out history and art treasures from the past, Emmanuèle Béthery came back to Paris and the “talent hunter” – as she likes to call herself – started the long job of restoring, archiving and saving the negatives found in the studio, some eaten by termites and mice and damaged by the tropical climate for over 40 years. Some fifty photographs have been meticulously and passionately selected. They were shot in the bush, in the villages of the Mayombe Range but also in Maurice Pellosh’s studio or on location in Pointe-Noire. They are amazing testimonies of what post-colonial Congolese society was like and show his unique and sensitive style as a talented portraitist with a generous and kind outlook.

Maurice Bidilou, a.k.a. Pellosh was born on 15 August 1951 in Bouansa, south of Congo- Brazzaville. At the age of 20 he became an “apprentice- photographer” in Pointe-Noire.

For 20 months he would learn the tricks and tips of the trade – how to manage shadow and light as well as nuances and chiara-oscura effects. That was the beginning of what was to become a lifetime passion for photography. In 1973, Pellosh ordered his first 6x6 Yashica camera in France and became a travelling photographer in the Mayombe Range. In every village, he would offer his service as a photographer and work in the nighttime in the chiefs’ huts, developing his films in the faint light of an oil lamp. In no more than one year, he had saved enough money to open his own studio in Pointe-Noire – about 200 yards from the big market – on 17 December 1973.

Success came very quickly and the usual ID photos aside, “Pellosh’s studio” became renowned as the place to be. Families, couples, friends and ‘sapeurs’ started crowding in there, wishing to capture their happiness and/or signs of success on film. At night, Pellosh would go to bars, dance clubs and concerts and mingle with freedom-loving young people. He indeed had an eye to capture this generation! In Congo, “Sape”, which is both clothing and the acronym for the Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance, has always been celebrated. Each generation has had their famous “sapeurs”, who are role models for young people. In the 1970s, “Sape” was at its peak and customers in Pointe-Noire yearned for very elaborate souvenir snapshots to be given to their next of kin and enlarged photos could also be ordered – a Congolese kind of dandyism. Shots were therefore made with symbolic props standing for wealth (transistor radio sets, solex bikes, vespa scooters) and / or for beauty (bags, glasses, hats) and artificial lighting made shooting possible around the clock.

As Congo was mainly a Christian country, Pellosh was quite free to immortalize lovers kissing or friends drinking beer from the bottle – this kind of photos being impossible in other countries that were religiously stricter.

As of 1990, products used for developing and black and white printing were no longer sold in Congo and ten years later digital photography emerged, which meant that he had to shut down his studio. Although he kept on working until 2016, he eventually put an end to a long and substantial career spanning over more than 4 decades. 69-year-old Pellosh is currently living in the outskirts of Pointe- Noire with his cameras, which are now obsolete, with some parts of the setting that were in his former studio and dozens of boxes filled with negatives and photographs.

To learn more about Pellosh' work and exhibitions in the future, visit Studio Pellosh

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