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Looking back: James Barnor reflects

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With two UK-based exhibitions and a photobook landing this summer, James Barnor, who is 92 today, may finally be receiving the recognition he deserves

James Barnor is a revered name in the world’s photography community – but it is only in recent years that his influential work has received the full recognition it deserves. Over a six-decade career, the Ghana-born photographer documented the African and Caribbean diaspora in 1960s London and created Black fashion images that inspired a new generation of artists. His work also captures Ghana moving towards independence in 1957 and its postcolonial period, and London becoming a multicultural metropolis in the latter half of the 20th century.

Barnor’s career began in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, where he was the Daily Graphic’s first photojournalist. He also worked for Drum, an influential South African anti-apartheid magazine based in Johannesburg. It was in Accra that Barnor set up his first studio. “There was no space to photograph, so I started my Ever Young studio [in the early 1950s] with natural light outside,” he remembers.

Nigerian Superman. Old Polo Ground, Mantse Agbona Park, Accra. 1958 © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.
Family members at the occasion of the engagement of James’ cousin. Amanomo, Accra. Late 1970s  © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

Two years after Ghanaian independence, Barnor moved to London, where he studied at the London College of Printing, and Colour Processing Laboratories in Kent while working at a factory. He went on to study at Medway College of Arts, which hired him as a technician, before returning to Accra in 1969 and establishing the first colour photography studio in the city, Studio X23. 

Barnor moved back to London in the 1990s, where he still lives today. Recently his work has gained recognition from wider audiences due in part to curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim helping put on his first solo show in 2007 when Barnor was almost 80. Back in the present day, two landmark exhibitions – Accra/London: A Retrospective at London’s Serpentine, and Ghanaian Modernist at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery as part of the Bristol Photo Festival – will run through this summer, and are accompanied by a retrospective photobook, The Roadmaker.

Sick-Hagemeyer shop assistant. Accra. 1972 © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.
A shop assistant at the Sick-Hagemeyer store. Accra. 1971 © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

Barnor’s style is distinct, and he maintained a sense of his culture whether he was shooting in the UK or Africa, including for his first magazine cover, shot in Britain in 1966 for Drum. He puts his ability to navigate his career and vision down to “God’s hand on me” or luck. However, it was not all positive when he arrived in London. Barnor faced numerous difficulties, including the lack of independent Black-owned studios and the nepotism throughout the freelance photography market. His biggest challenges were racism and discrimination from clients and studio owners, which were rife.

However, when Barnor returned to Accra a decade later, he was at the peak of his fame and prosperity. “I had about three permanent jobs and solid pay,” he says. “I wanted the opportunity to establish colour printing in Ghana, hence my return.” Back in Accra, Barnor vividly recalls the first person he photographed in colour. “I took some test shots that we call colour guides. I remember taking a girl with colourful plastic bottles, which I shot in our laboratory yard. Those bottles were borrowed for the pictures so that I could see if the colours would reproduce well.”

Print in progress, Studio X23. Accra. 1972 © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

According to Barnor, ”education”, learning from different sources, is central to a photographer honing their craft. He quotes a proverb: “Civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they will never sit.” Indeed, Barnor’s photographs span continents, decades and styles, something on which both exhibitions and the book reflect. “I’m looking forward to sharing the secrets of the past with today’s photographers through my exhibitions,” he says. “I want to take people back to how [practitioners were] producing photographs then, and I want a museum to preserve the processes for history – this is one of my priorities today.” 

James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective is on show at the Serpentine, London, until 22 October 2021. James Barnor: Ghanaian Modernist is at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery as part of Bristol Photo Festival, until 30 October 2021. And The Roadmaker is published by Maison CF/RRB, priced £40.

Ekow Barnes

Ekow Barnes is a culture writer and producer living in Accra, Ghana. His writing has appeared in CNN Style, Essence, Vogue Italia, Vogue Business, Dazed, i-D, and others. He specialises in producing content in Africa and has a diverse portfolio of clients both internationally and domestically. His focus is spotlighting emerging talents and showcasing their work to the world.

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