Behind the scenes of a photo studio, we discover a unique modern history of Madagascar

It would be easy to pass by the most famous photography studio in Antananarivo. But Techni-Photo does not need to advertise. For everyone in Antananarivo, or Tana, as it is called, will know Ramily, the late photographer who for many decades was the only still operational photographer in Madagascar, and thus an unrivaled chronicler of the modern history of Madagascar. unique island that lies in the Indian Ocean, 400 km off the southeast coast of Africa.

Today, Ramily’s studio is in Itaosy, a bustling but little-visited suburb just south of the Malagasy capital. Nearby, piled up, dozens of improvised houses topped with corrugated sheets. Chickens dig on the ground, stray dogs laze in the sun, people weave their way through the lanes of high-speed traffic. The studio is not far from the Ikopa River, which meanders through the valleys of the city – its banks have burst again due to the worsening monsoons and the studio could soon be flooded.

Hope the water recedes. Because this unpretentious place is a treasure of modern history. In the back rooms of the studio still in operation are thousands and thousands of photographs, most of which have remained unseen for decades. They include a comprehensive and intimate overview of the modern social history of Madagascar. And they are now being discovered for the very first time.

Ramily, Self-Portrait © Ramily, courtesy of Techni-Photo and Hakanto Contemporary

Ramily, whose real name is Emile Rakotondrazaka, will not live long enough to see his photographs celebrated beyond Madagascar — he died on March 26, 2017, bequeathing his son to the studio. He was born in 1939 into poverty in 1939, one of 12 children, and in his early twenties witnessed the sometimes violent Malagasy independence movement that saw French settlers eventually pack up and leave the island to define its own identity.

When independence finally arrived, on June 26, 1960, Ramily was working as an assistant at the PhotoFlex studio in the upscale neighborhood of Analakely. In the mid-1960s, as Madagascar began to write its own history as a postcolonial nation, Ramily went it alone, founding Techni-Photo in the less salubrious Itaosy. His studio will soon be the only operational image lab in the city and the country at large.

Throughout his life, Ramily worked in black and white and would process his images in a chemical darkroom he invented using old technical manuals that still line the shelves. The studio, which continues to be run by his son, still contains the aging chemicals and worn, grooved equipment that Ramily used to manually process and print images throughout his life.

Ramily, The Reflections of the Sunset at Soavinandriana © Ramily, courtesy of Techni-Photo and Hakanto Contemporary

Ramily has never been exhibited beyond Madagascar. Indeed, beyond an exhibition in 1981, at the Hall of Air Madagascar avenue de l’Indépendance, his photography has not been exhibited in Antananarivo either.

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been seen. Many Tana families will treasure an original photograph of Ramily. He was the man to call whenever a rite of passage took place; in a city of over 500 churches, Ramily was on hand to photograph countless weddings, communions, baptisms, funerals and community moments. The front rooms of his studio provided a kind of backdrop – Ramily posed the citizens of Tana, dressed in their finest clothes, for precious portraits. Often his image was the one and only occasion his subject would ever be photographed.

But Ramily was not just a studio photographer. Nor did he limit himself to photographing community life. The archive contains countless cityscapes of Tana, many of which look down the city’s iconic Lake Anosy towards the Rova, a palace built on the city’s highest peak. For much of its history, Antananarivo was largely concentrated around the Rova, an area now called the high-society — ‘upper town’. When the country gained independence, the official population of Antanorivo was 261,000. Today, it has exploded into a modern metropolis of what some estimate is home to more than four million people, many of whom live unofficially, in makeshift and often precarious conditions. Now, from the Rova’s point of view, the city stretches almost as far as the eye can see.

Ramily, The Two Faces of Lake Anosy (the two faces of Lake Anosy) © Ramily, courtesy of Techni-Photo and Hakanto Contemporary

Ramily has also traveled the country as a whole. Madagascar is home to over 1,500 species endemic to the island, making it the most varied and unique ecosystem in the world. He photographed the various wilderness areas of the country, with its many unique animals and plants, long before it became the setting for the eponymous Hollywood children’s film and a western safari destination.

On April 30, Hakanto Contemporary, the city’s first major arts center, will present a curated retrospective of Ramily’s photography for the first time. The exhibition, curated by Hakanto’s artistic director, Joël Andrianomearisoa, will seek to recreate the setting of Ramily’s studio and will include images Ramily took from the start and end of his career, spanning social portraits, Malagasy landscapes and historical urban landscapes of Tana. The images will be presented alongside new texts commissioned by Malagasy artist and sociologist Ludonie Velontrasina.

Hakanto will now work to preserve and digitize negatives and processed images before they deteriorate further.

• Ramily: the one who will reveal the dayContemporary Hakanto, Antananarivo, April 30-July 30

Stewart C. Hartline