OBITUARY: Pierre Verger

Doig Simmonds
Saturday 02 March 1996 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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Pierre Verger first made his name as one of the co-founders of Alliance Photo, an agency of independent photographers in France during the early 1930s. It included such famous names as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Man Ray, Pierre Boucher and Robert Capa. From then on, for the rest of his life, Verger worked primarily as a freelance photo- journalist addicted to travelling.

Pierre Boucher introduced him to the art of photography, in 1932. At the same time he also experienced what might now be called a slightly early "mid-life crisis". Finding the idea of ageing degrading and useless, he decided to leave this world when he reached 40. This left him 10 years, every one of which was to be lived fully and with no compromises either with money or social ambition.

He decided to give up the parochial life of Paris and his rather boring work in the family printing firm and to travel the world, with little baggage and a trusty Rolleiflex camera. For the next 50 years he took some 65,000 photos for a large variety of publishers. He has over 60 other publications to his name, and in 1982 published Fifty Years of Photographs, a photographic autobiography.

In 1934 he met George Henri Riviere, then Assistant Director of the Musee de l'Homme, who was about to set up an ethnographic exhibition on the South Sea Islands. As Verger had just returned from there, Riviere was able to use many of his photographs. A lifelong friendship developed, and as Verger became more ethnographer than photo-journalist so his association with the Musee de l'Homme continued and grew until well into the 1980s.

A chance contact in 1934 with the Daily Mirror earned him enough money to visit black Africa. He journeyed across the Sahara to Togo, where he developed a deep contact with the Yoruba people. The Mirror evidently liked his work and offered him a lucrative contract for the exclusive rights; but Verger refused, in spite of a precarious financial situation, because he could not bear to give up his freedom.

The following year he was asked by Paul Hartman, a well-known French publisher, to illustrate a book on Spain. He had recently completed a photographic tour of Andalusia which suited Hartman admirably. In 1937 his pictures were included in the book South Sea Islands. The same year he covered the Sino-Japanese war for Ce Soir, photographing the siege of Shanghai and the evacuation of the Chinese; he also recorded an interview with General Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1938, still worried by the idea of dying at 40, he calculated that he had only 1,500 more days to live. He bought a tape measure 1.5m long and resolved to cut off 1mm per day as a constant reminder of his mortality, and to give him the necessary boost to "get on" with his life and interests.

In Mexico when the Second World War was declared, he travelled the following year to Dakar and was drafted into a photographic unit of the French army. Dakar provided him with two important future contacts: his old friend Bernard Maupoil, who happened to be an expert on Yoruba Divination Systems, and Theodore Monod, then Director of the Institut Francais d'Afrique Noir (Ifan).

Demobilised, in 1941 Verger went to South America, where he worked for Argentine Libre and the review El Mundo Argentino. Moving to Peru the following year, he spent 1942-46 as photographer at the National Museum, Lima. When the last millimetre was left on his "life" tape he read Lin Yu Tang's The Importance of Living, which changed his mind about continuing to live.

The urge to travel and "move on" remained. At Bahia in Brazil, Verger felt a close affinity with the Yoruba/African population's culture. He was encouraged by Professor Roger Bastide of Sao Paulo University to pursue the ethnology of black Africa in the Old and New World.

In 1948, in Bahia, Verger met Dona Senhora, a senior priestess of the Yoruba Oshun cult. She saw him as the "Go- Between", a messenger between the religions of the old and new world. He was subsequently inducted into the Yoruba cult of Sango, the Thunder God. His interest in the religious life of the Yoruba grew into a passion which was to illuminate his entire life.

In Ketou, Dahomey (now Benin), in 1952, Verger was fully initiated into the Yoruba religion and given the name "Fatumbi". He also became a "Babalawo" ("father of secrets", a senior official's rank) of the Ifa divination cult. This gave him a unique insight into the society he loved - and a tremendous responsibility not to reveal the priest's rites. On a recent visit to the School for Oriental and African Studies at London University, he told the students: "If you want to become anthropologists, don't ever ask questions - just sit down and listen."

The academic world was beginning to take an interest in his work - Ifan gave him scholarships, demanding some form of publication in return, and he received a doctorate for his thesis on the slave trade; in 1975 the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris (CNRS) offered him a directorship. Despite these honours he still referred to his academic colleagues as "colourless parrots".

My first work with Pierre Verger was in 1968 when he asked me to help design the displays for a museum of the slave trade in Porto Novo, Dahomey. Our long friendship was recently reinforced with the publication of his last major work, a 762-page volume on the use of plants in Yoruba society, entitled Ewe ("leaves" in Yoruba), whose texts were collected over 40 years. It is illustrated by his lifelong friend Carybe, and I designed a typeface for the Yoruba language. Verger's brother priests in Bahia told him that he "could not die - the gods would not let him" until it was completed, which it was in November 1995. It has been prepared in Yoruba, Portuguese, English and French versions.

The Pierre Verger Foundation at Bahia in Brazil was inaugurated in March 1988 to create a study centre for all material - texts, recordings and photographs - related to the interconnected cultures of West Africa and Brazil.

Pierre (Fatumbi) Verger, photographer and anthropologist: born Paris 4 November 1902; died Bahia, Brazil 11 February 1996.

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