Looking back: James Barnor displays

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With two UK-based exhibitions and a photobook landing this  summertime, James Barnor, who is 92 today, may finally end up being receiving the recognition he should get

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

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

Nigerian Superman. Aged Polo Ground, Mantse Agbona Park, Accra. 1958 © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

Family members at the occasion of the wedding of James’ cousin. Amanomo, Accra. Late 1970s  © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

2 yrs after Ghanaian independence, Barnor moved to London, where he analyzed at the London College of Printing, and Colour Digesting Laboratories in Kent whilst working at a factory. He or she went on to study at Medway College of Arts, which usually hired him as a technician, before returning to Accra in 1969 and establishing the very first colour photography studio in the city, Studio X23.  

Barnor moved back to London in the 1990s, where he nevertheless lives today. Recently his work has gained identification 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: The Retrospective at London’s Serpentine, and Ghanaian Modernist at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery included in the Bristol Photo Festival – will run through this summer, and they 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 associate at the Sick-Hagemeyer store. Accra. 1971 © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

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

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

Print happening, Studio X23. Accra. 1972 © James Barnor thanks to Galerie Clémentine de una Féronnière.

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

Ekow Barnes

Ekow Barnes is a culture writer and producer residing in Accra, Ghana. His writing has appeared in CNN Style, Essence, Vogue Croatia, Vogue Business, Dazed, i-D, and others. He specialises in producing content in Africa and has a diverse profile of clients both worldwide and domestically. His focus is spotlighting emerging abilities and showcasing their function to the world.

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