National Museum of African Art
Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911-1994) was one of Nigeria's première photographers and the first indigenous photographer of the Royal Court of Benin. His photographic collection consists of over 2,000 glass plate negatives and large format film negatives, over 100 hand-tinted and black-and-white prints and photographic albums. The photographer’s camera equipment and personal memorabilia round out the collection.
The Chief Alonge Collection spans six decades (1926 - 1989) and represents a dynamic, continuous record of the Benin Royal Court, Nigeria. As the Royal photographer to the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II (1933-1978), Alonge documented the pageantry, ritual and regalia of the Obas, their wives and retainers for over a half-century, including the coronation of the king and the Queen Mother, Iyoba. The collection also documents historic visits to Benin by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (1956), Princess Alexandra (1960), foreign dignitaries, traditional rulers, political leaders and celebrities. It preserves an important historical record of Benin art and culture during the periods of British colonial rule and Nigerian independence in the twentieth century. The rarity and historical value of the collection are enhanced by Alonge's privileged access to the Palace as a chief in the Iwebo Palace Society, a position which presents a unique insider's view of Benin royalty. The collection is unique as an indigenously created visual record of life in colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. The quality and sheer survival of the collection is testament to Alonge's technological skills in photography and his professionalism in keeping the collection ordered and well-preserved despite the heat, humidity and tropical climate of West Africa.
Chief S.O. Alonge's significance as one of the earliest indigenous photographers in West Africa has been documented in detail by anthropologist Flora Kaplan. Alonge learned the craft of photography as a youth in Lagos during the 1920s and saw himself and his profession as an honorable and distinguished calling. He clearly demonstrated an inclusive documentary perspective in his efforts to photograph many aspects of the world around him. In 1942, Alonge established the Ideal Photography Studio in Benin City and documented colonial society, the establishment of churches and businesses, and the formation of new civic organizations and social groups in the 1930s and 1940s. As a commercial photographer, Alonge photographed individual and group portraits, preserving a visual record of the everyday lives and peoples of Benin City. Alonge's studio portraits illustrate how the local residents of Benin City presented themselves to the camera and engaged with the practice of photography during the early to mid-twentieth century.
Preservation of the Chief Alonge Collection (2009 - 2010):
In 2009, an award from Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) allowed the Elisofon Archives to preserve and duplicate 150 glass plate negatives and 1800 large format film negatives in the Alonge collection. The original glass plates were re-housed in non-buffered four-flap envelopes and glass plate negative boxes with proper spacing and support. Over 50 fragile glass plate negatives with flaking emulsion or chipped corners were placed in conservation sink mats. The Alonge conservation project created master interpositives and duplicate negatives for over 2000 images. Preservation, duplication and scanning of the Alonge film negatives has allowed cataloguing to proceed and will make the collection accessible to scholars, researchers and the general public.
With Phase I funding from CCPF, preservation surveys of Alonge's photographic albums, photographs, manuscripts and artifacts in the collection were completed with Phase I funding provided by CCPF. The artifacts include Alonge’s camera equipment, his accordion and vintage pants and boots which he wore as an official photographer of the Royal Court of Benin. With Phase II funding from CCPF in 2010, the Elisofon Archives is able to preserve Alonge’s photographic albums, hand-colored photographs and prints and manuscript materials.
Amy Staples, Senior Archivist, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives