Solomon Osagie Alonge
Photographer Solomon Osagie Alonge was born in Benin City, Nigeria in 1911. Moving to Lagos at 14 years of age, Alonge developed an instant interest in photography. Capturing everyday life in and around Benin City, his body of work comprised of school portraits and images taken at social club gatherings, sporting events and government ceremonies. Alonge’s career reached its pinnacle in 1933, when he became the official royal court photographer of Benin, working for nearly half a century, first for Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978) and then Oba Erediauwa (1979-present). Alongside, Alonge continued to photograph his local community and established the Ideal Photo Studio in 1942.
Often referred to as the man who turned colonial photography on its head, Alonge allowed for a new expression in the court – one void of an othering and exoticizing white gaze. Granted it was the British who recognised his talent in colonial rule, Alonge ensured that his subjects personal integrity and power were visualised in each image, offering them “the opportunity to represent themselves as dignified African subjects.” Where previous British photographers depicted Nigerians with impassive rigidity, Alonge initiated a new narrative of cultural and national pride.
Scenes of defeat - exiled royal families and burned, pillaged palaces delineating the Nigerian as victimized and weak were replaced with a belated yet restorative prowess. Whether seated or standing, Alonge’s subjects posed with ease in their own attire; their posture noble, their gaze exuding a powerful and charming grace, their portraits theirs to keep. Alonge’s work transcends the formality of royal portraiture, his dynamism as a self-taught photographer shedding a unique and exposing light on his otherwise enigmatic subjects. Using the skills he acquired photographing his community, his style infused both traditional and modish motifs, his images customarily shot in large format with a glass plate camera and a makeshift studio backdrop.
Alonge played a pivotal part in preserving an authentic historical record of Benin’s art and culture during the 1950’s and 1960’s, first during the British colonial rule and then the transition to Nigerian independence. As, Max Kutner stated for the Smithsonian Magazine: “Though the British remained in the region until 1960 (Alonge photographed Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1956), Alonge helped usher in an era of Nigerians representing themselves and acting as keepers of their own history.” Alonge and his work remained largely undiscovered even after his passing in 1994. In 2014, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, exhibited over 2,000 large format and glass plate film negatives in their longstanding collection, Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin. These rare archival photographs of Alonge’s are now also displayed at the National Museum in Benin City as of October this year.
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