There is a certain enchantment in discovering a man until recently shrouded in obscurity, who dedicated his life to photography. In two British exhibitions, one at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the other in Bristol, at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, as part of the British Photo Festival, James Barnor tells the story of his visual accomplishments in an unfailing testimony.
James Barnor has just celebrated his 92nd birthday: the tribute might seem to be long overdue. Fortunately, it was preceded by the acquisition of sixty-nine prints, including a large portion of vintage images, by the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, as well as by other exhibitions in his native country, Ghana, at the Nubuke Foundation last year, as well as in Paris, in 2015, at the Clémentine de la Féronnière Gallery. “He has a unique profile, an insatiable curiosity, and he’s a hard worker,” emphasizes this enthusiastic gallery owner, a fixture at the Île Saint-Louis (since 2010), who published Barnor’s first book, Ever Young. “James was ahead of his time, a precursor with respect to other photographers around the world. His journey, spanning Africa and Europe, is unprecedented. His archives, comprising 32,000 negatives we have digitized, are historical in character, they’re a true heritage.”
James Barnor was born on June 6, 1929, in Accra, Ghana, or the Gold Coast, as it was known under the then-British colonial government. He was familiar with photography from childhood, remembering that his father “took his sisters” to J.K. Bruce Vanderpuije (1899–1989), whose studio, Deo Gratias, located in the Jamestown district, enjoyed great popularity. His cousin, J.P. Dodoo, a studio photographer, initiated him into photography. Barnor’s first portraits were taken in the street, using natural light and a backdrop borrowed from his uncle. In 1953, Barnor opened his own studio, Ever Young, also in Jamestown, on the Atlantic seaboard. People would come day and night to celebrate weddings, graduations, the end of a rehearsal, or to get a memento of their elegance, like Miss Abbew, who can be seen in profile, pensively perched on a stool, a cloud-covered sky in the background.
But Barnor was not just a renowned studio artist, he was also a reporter who learned his ropes at the Daily Graphic, as he explained in an interview with Margaret Busy and Francis Hodgson: “The Daily Graphic would dispatch photographers to take snapshots, with the idea of producing, not static studio portraits, but informal images of people going about their business. The next day, people would see themselves in the newspaper. This profoundly changed the attitude of photographers, including amateurs, who began to take unposed, less conventional pictures, like those in The Daily Graphic.”
On Independence Day, March 6, 1957, James Barnor was working on an assignment for the international agency Black Star. During the festivities, his lens captured the new prime minister and future president of the Republic of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), considered the father of Pan-Africanism. The day before, James Barnor had walked with Jim Bailey, the founder of the Johannesburg-based magazine Drum in 1951, the same year as the Daily Graphic. Nicknamed “the Black urban bible” of the townships, this anti-apartheid magazine, according to Vincent Godeau, author of a book on African photography, sparked “a cultural revolution” in South Africa. Jim Bailey and his team gave black people a real social visibility. Jim Bailey aimed for, and achieved, a circulation of four hundred thousand copies: Drum was not only distributed in South Africa, but also in Ghana, Nigeria, and East Africa.
A renowned studio-owner and a contributor to The Daily Graphic and Drum: one would think this would have been more than enough to satisfy James Barnor, who likes to call himself “lucky” (as in “Lucky Jim”). It was not. Two years after Ghana’s independence, in 1959, he took off for England, where he resided until 1969. Why? “To broaden [his] knowledge.” An ideal of perfection: attentive to others and with a passion for photography and its metamorphoses, this man was open to color, which literally transfixed him. Barnor enrolled in evening classes at the London College of Printing, learned about color at the Colour Processing Laboratory (CPL), and became a technical assistant at the Medway College of Art in Rochester. All the while, he continued to collaborate with Drum magazine from his new setting, London, a beloved multicultural oasis. He used the city as his backdrop-in-motion, without any stylization, and never forgetting his native country, as when he immortalized a dance party following a performance by E.T. Mensah, “the king of highlife.”
The photos from his London period, notably those made for Drum, bring into play an effect of surprise and artistic intuition, sometimes paired with his trademark touch of whimsy: Ghanaian Mike Eghan, famous radio host in Piccadilly Circus, photographed in front of a neon Coca-Cola ad; Erlin Ibreck, one of Barnor’s favorite models whom he had met at a bus station, posing in Trafalgar Square, surrounded by pigeons. James Barnor is concerned with transparency and simplicity: there is no danger of him littering the frame with unnecessary things; on the contrary, the photograph is freed from any artifice.
Upon his return to Accra in 1969, Barnor opened Ghana’s first color laboratory, and in 1973 he took up portraiture again in his new studio, X23. These were his golden years, which also saw him design advertisements and vinyl record sleeves. In Europe, Ghana was known through Paul Strand’s legendary photographs, as well as the lively, endearing images Marc Riboud contributed to Jean Rouch’s book Ghana in 1964 (published by Atlas des Voyages). From now on, it will be impossible to envision Ghana without thinking of James Barnor.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
“James Barnor, Accra/London: A Retrospective,” Serpentine North Gallery, London until October 22, 2021. Exhibition catalog.
“James Barnor: Ghanian Modernist,” British Museum & Art Gallery, until October 31, 2021 as part of the Bristol Photo Festival.
James Barnor, The Roadmaker has just been published by Maison CF/ RRB Photobooks. Text by Damarice Anao. Available here.
To learn more about J.K. Bruce Vanderpuije, and Deo Gratias’s studio, see Ghana Photo Memories published in 2007 by Filigranes, with texts by Thomas Pelletier, Joe Nkrumah, Pierre Jacquemot.
Erika Nimis, Photographes d’Afrique de l’Ouest: L’expérience Yoruba, Karthala, 2005.
Vincent Godeau, La photographie africaine contemporaine, L’Harmattan, 2015.
Togo-Ghana, Revue Noire, no. 32, edited by Henri Assila and Bruno Airaud, 1999.