From Ghana’s independence to London’s transformation into a multicultural hub, Barnor’s photography tells the story of societies through people in the studio and on the streets
The retrospective exhibition at MASI Lugano
Standing as a cultural bridge between the south and north of the Alps, MASI Lugano is one of the most visited museums in Switzerland. The museum continues its tradition of presenting contemporary and historical photography. It is now home to the largest retrospective exhibition devoted to photographer James Barnor. Born in 1929 in Accra, Ghana, Barnor has been based in London since the 1990s. ‘James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective’ displays a selection of over 200 works. Organized as a chronological journey through Barnor’s work, the exhibition focuses on the decades 1950-1980. It highlights turns in his career starting from getting established in Accra and the Ever Young Studio; to his work in London and his photographs for the anti-apartheid magazine ‘Drum’.
Curated by Lizzie Carey-Thomas, the exhibition brings the efforts of three museums and galleries together. The show was initiated and organized by Serpentine Galleries in London. After being presented there and in Lugano, the collection is set to move to Detroit Institute of Arts in Spring 2023. This aims to increase Barnor’s acclaim and bring attention to his critical societal impact. Barnor expresses his gratitude for the retrospective and the people involved in its creation. «People are more significant to me than places», he says; and stresses the role of the genuine interest that the team has demonstrated for his work and the retrospective.
James Barnor on getting recognition at a later age
Since 1947, James Barnor has had photography in his life. Despite this, recognition for his work came later in life. His work was discovered in 2007 when his first exhibition was arranged at the Black Cultural Archives. Following writer Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s interest in his career, the show ‘Mr. Barnor’s Independence Diaries’ took place. Curating the exhibition, she was also the one to suggest Barnor publish a book. In 2010, a major solo retrospective at the Rivington Place, London, heightened his appreciation of his work. Further exhibitions worldwide brought him recognition as a studio portraitist, photojournalist, and Black lifestyle photographer. «I’m lucky in life, but I don’t enjoy the opportunity as I should», he explains.
Barnor expresses how being discovered at 60 at the latest would have positively impacted his work. This would have allowed him to cash in on the recognition and access better cameras and opportunities. «Even though some don’t get it before they die, I wish it happened earlier because there’s so many ideas and so much more to do». This relatively late recognition paved the way for many retrospectives. He views this format as a unique way to revisit his work and remember his photographic journey. «It gives me another opportunity to live another life», he says.
At ninety-two years old, he still doesn’t consider his working life to be over. With the increased recognition, his press coverage also increased. Finding answers and explanations for small details throughout his lengthy career is a challenge; this is why he considers himself to be working more than before. His photographic life continues too. Barnor admits he’s not as steady as he used to be, yet he still enjoys snapping shots with his iPad. He has also grown to enjoy helping or directing people around him who are taking photos. Sharing his knowledge of the correct camera focus and lighting is a way for him to continue his impact.
The Ever Young Studio and Retouching
Following his two-year apprenticeship with his cousin, Barnor established his studio in 1949. Focused on studio portraiture, the studio was named Ever Young. The inspiration for the name came from Barnor’s school years. His teacher had tasked the students with finding a title for an excerpt she had read. Struck by the story, he remembers the excerpt to this day and explains the centrality of youth in it. As it was focused around a girl who had turned older people into young as her mission, Barnor titled the excerpt Ever Young. This stuck with him over the years; and replaced the initial name he had for his studio, James Barnor’s Quick Photo Service.
This also marks a turning point in the studio’s mission. Previously, he would develop and print the films that amateurs would bring to the studio. He calls this one of the easiest ways to make money as a photographer. Shifting his focus to studio portraiture, he practiced all that he had learned from his cousin. He increasingly took end-of-year photos for schools and other groups, babies, and even corpses. These became his most steady flow of income, but what made his work stand out was the retouching. Now overtaken by Photoshop, this practice used well-sharpened lead pencils in various grades. «This is something I would like to demonstrate because it’s now like a dinosaur practice», he jokes.
Barnor later hired other workers in his studio to take care of the retouching. This allowed him to focus on the quality of his photos and also gave him extra time to dive into photojournalism. Unlike others, he tapped into the power of cooperation to take his work to the next level. «Everybody kept whatever they were doing to themselves. But I didn’t fear competitors», he says. As much as he enjoyed studio work, Barnor stresses his love for chasing news outside. Another cousin of his had introduced him to this world, and Barnor was captivated by how pictures speak and how they can be used for publicity. This was his double life as a photographer, between affairs in the studio and capturing stories outside.
Journalistic photography reflects societies
His instinct to document the outside world led Barnor to become the first staff photographer of the state-owned Ghanaian ‘Daily Graphic’ newspaper. Barnor reminisces of his school days once again, reflecting on his role as editor of the school magazine. «That was an opening example for the tests of discipline and responsibility», he says. With the spirit of journalism, he tasted the feeling of investigating and writing to uphold personalities or works. Barnor believes this feeling stayed with him and contributed to his later career as a photojournalist.
In the 1950s, Barnor was introduced to Jim Bailey, the founder of Drum, a South African black lifestyle magazine. The two got along very quickly, and Barnor started another influential chapter of his life by photographing for the publication. Barnor had moved to London to develop his skills by this time further. When he first relocated, he used Drum’s office on Fleet Street as his base. He worked at a color pressing lab and studied at Medway College of Art in Rochester, Kent. Moving to the UK allowed his work to take on a new meaning. Documenting Africans in the UK, his work was often used as covers for Drum in this period. Photographing black models on London streets cemented his work as a fashion photographer. «There weren’t many publications using black images. Drum gave me that opportunity in England».
Barnor also recognizes that he may have taken this task for granted. He shares his regret in not using his close relationship with Jim Bailey to deepen his understanding of the magazine’s message. «I took it as just the ordinary run of the mill. When you get the job, you do it», he says. This isn’t to say that he was unaware of his work’s significance. That only grew in time. Being Drum’s photographer and closely knowing Bailey impacted his career and stance as a photographer.
An impactful career representing change
Following a decade in England, Barnor returned to Ghana to share his new skills and knowledge. «I went back intending to introduce this technique that I’d learned to my country», he says, which led him to establish the country’s first-ever color processing laboratory. He stayed in his home country for the next twenty-four years, furthering his career as a professional photographer. The American Embassy and the Ghanaian government supported his freelance work.
Barnor expresses his happiness with the interest he has gathered around his work. With his focus on photographing people, he can engage viewers with a different way of capturing history. Recording slices of time and societies under major shifts sets his work apart. He lived through key historical moments like Ghana’s independence from colonial rule in 1957 and London morphing into a multicultural metropolis. Barnor photographed faces, including boxing champions Muhammed Ali and Roy Ankrah, and political figures like Ghana’s future first president Kwame Nkrumah and Richard Nixon. He represented Ghanaian everyday life through the eyes of a Ghanaian rather than a white photographer, along with African style and culture in the UK. This cultural significance and contribution to portraiture make many thankful his recognition was late rather than never.
Ghanaian photographer with a career spanning six decades. The Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana (MASI) is an art museum located in Lugano, Switzerland. Until the end of July 2022, the museum is home to the most extensive retrospective dedicated to James Barnor. The collection includes many family photos, commissioned portraits, and commercial assignments.