Photography was introduced to present-day Mali during the 1880s by French military officers and, later, colonial administrators, missionaries, and French expatriates. By the 1940s, an African market for photography developed in the French Sudan, as Mali was then known. In the hands of local patrons and photographers, who maintained a monopoly over the medium until the 1980s, photography rapidly became a powerful means of visual self-expression, experimentation, and social agency for the territory's diverse population, informed by unique cultural practices, aesthetic values, and transnational trends.
Alongside itinerant practitioners, who often reached rural areas following railway routes, urban-based studios were created by young African men to meet ever-growing demands in the capital city, Bamako, and smaller towns located along the Niger River such as Ségu and Mopti. Operating out of their domestic courtyards using second-hand materials, the earliest photographers worked with large wooden view cameras, glass-plate negatives, and natural sunlight, producing small-scale sepia toned prints. By the late 1950s, professional urban practitioners were able to open electrified commercial establishments, making use of smaller, more portable, film-based cameras and enlargers to produce black-and-white images.
Working in a variety of photographic genres, studio photographers created documentary photographs for the government, local businesses, and private clients. They also produced identification photos for official documents and images intended to preserve cultural heritage and local artistry. However, portraiture remained the mainstay of these small businesses, as the photographers practiced both within and outside of the studio, serving celebrities, politicians, and lay people alike. As a result, their archives contain rare visual documentation of social, cultural, and political life as well as processes of urban development in the country, and in French West Africa more broadly.