James Barnor's archive was produced during a career spanning more than 60 years. It covers a remarkable period in history, bridging continents and photographic genres, as it creates a transatlantic narrative marked by the artist's passionate interest in people and cultures. A major solo exhibition of Barnor's photographs was presented by Autograph ABP at Rivington Place in London from Sept. 17 to Nov. 27, 2010. It will form part of the U.K.'s first archive for culturally diverse photography, due to launch in 2011.
Image gallery curated and captioned by Renée Mussai
Born in 1929 in Accra, then the capital of the British Gold Coast colony, Barnor completed an apprenticeship before beginning his photographic career with a makeshift studio in the streets of Accra's Jamestown district in 1949. From the early 1950s onward, he operated Ever Young Studio, which served as a social hub during a period when visiting a photographer's studio was seen as a "ritual occasion" for capturing a life-changing experience or marking a special moment, such as graduation or entering a new urban profession. The young woman pictured here was the 10th female police officer to graduate from Accra's newly established academy.
Barnor's photographic studio, Ever Young, was named after a poem called "Iduna's Grove," in which a young Nordic goddess consumes magic apples to keep herself and her suitors "ever young." Its title alludes to the widespread practice of retouching sitters' faces to perfection, and as such reflects Barnor's promise to his clients!
In the classic tradition of African photographic staging, popular since the late 19th century in the many studios thriving in towns and villages across the continent, Barnor combined professional necessity, commercial viability and artistic expression, creating a theatrical ambience complete with parted curtains, stage, and a variety of elaborate painted backdrops and strange props.
The comedy group portrayed in this photograph represents the traditional Ghanaian concert-party genre, a popular comic variety show, with its actors often performing in black face and as female impersonators, creating humorous sociopolitical commentary.
From black-and-white studio portraits to documentary photojournalism to the color fashion photography of his later career, Barnor documented upward journeys of social mobility and the emergence of new societies, capturing his subjects with a sense of pride, self-confidence, optimism and self-determination — from 1950s Ghana to 1960s England and, thereafter, across continents.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Barnor's clientele included a traditional middle class as well as an aspiring working class — diplomats, teachers, dancers, athletes and other new urban professionals — who represented the nation's move toward independence, and a society in transformation.
Barnor's archives include not only official reportage for Ghana's independence celebrations but also intimate portraits of Kwame Nkrumah, future leader of a newly independent Ghana, and other national luminaries such as Roy Ankrah, the Ghanaian boxing champion also known as the Black Flash.
In 1952 Kwame Nkrumah became the British colony's first prime minister and began to lead the country toward becoming the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence from colonial rule; the Gold Coast became independent Ghana in 1957.
Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah greets the Duchess of Kent at Accra Stadium in 1957.
Barnor left Ghana for England in 1959 to further his career and study photography at Medway College of Art in Kent. In his own words, he moved in "enlightened circles" and did not experience much racism, yet could not help noticing that seats next to him on buses often remained empty, and trying to find accommodation in "white" areas was a challenge. This photograph shows Mike Eghan, the BBC World Service reporter, photographed for a Drum-magazine assignment (Eghan was also the host of the popular Ghanaian Mike Eghan Show).
In 1960s London, Barnor's lens captured the emergence of a global Diaspora and the shaping of a multicultural, cosmopolitan society. Many of his works from this period were commissioned for Drum magazine. The photographs offer a rare glimpse of the black experience during an era when few professional black photographers were practicing in Great Britain or anywhere else in Europe.
Among the many luminaries Barnor photographed was Muhammad Ali, pictured here with a Drum fashion model-reporter, preparing to fight Brian London for the world heavyweight title in August 1966 at Earls Court Exhibition Centre.
At a time when few black models were featured, Barnor created glamorous cover stories for Drum as well as other international fashion and lifestyle magazines. Among the aspiring models he photographed was a young woman named Erlin Ibreck, here seen in an iconographic cover shoot at London's Trafalgar Square. Watch out for the suspiciously smiling suited man in the background!
Pictured here in Kilburn in northwest London during the swinging 1960s, Erlin Ibreck moved to the U.S., where she become a successful executive, after experiencing overt racism in the fashion industry. In a recent interview, Ibreck cited an incident when her modeling booking was canceled because the agency's (South African) clients were opposed to the color of her skin.
Marie Hallowi was an aspiring model of mixed heritage from a small village in northern Nigeria who graced several Drum covers and also appeared in the popular British secret-agent television series The Avengers during the late 1960s.
In 1969, after a decade in England, Barnor returned to Ghana to help establish the country's first color-processing laboratory. While serving as the official African representative for Agfa-Gevaert, then the leading company for imaging technology, he set up Studio X-23 in Accra and soon started working for government agencies, including the U.S. Embassy.
In Barnor's portfolio of multinational Drum cover girls and studio portraits of "ordinary" world citizens and key public personalities, one witnesses not only shifting notions of cultural and political identities and the fragmented experience of modernity in the Diaspora, but also the onset of a burgeoning modernization in colonial and postcolonial Africa over the decades, all captured by Barnor's lens in stylish black and white and glorious color images.
Through the medium of portraiture, Barnor's street and studio photographs represent societies in transition: Ghana moving toward its independence, and London becoming a cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis.