A Pioneering Lens

James Barnor (b.1929) is a highly significant modernist photographer, known for capturing the richness of street life in 1960s London and the burgeoning postcolonial culture of his native Ghana. A new book from RRB Photobooks, The Roadmaker, coincides with significant retrospectives of the artist’s work at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (part of Bristol Photo Festival) and the Serpentine Gallery in London, both of which reveal his incisive portraitist’s eye.

Born in Accra in 1929, Barnor is, amongst other things, a revolutionary figure within Ghanaian photography. He introduced new technologies and processes to the country and, in 1950, he established Ever Young Studio, a photo-portrait company that built its reputation on the speedy turnaround of negatives. Its clients included future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah. In contrast to Ever Young’s stylised snaps (the name refers to the practice of touching up prints to make sitters more attractive), the artist also worked en plein air during this period, notably capturing the national mood on Ghana’s streets during the break from British colonial rule in 1957.

Although Barnor’s early works tend to have a crisp aesthetic style, many were created for press and commercial purposes. These were often sold to newspapers and magazines such as the Accra-based Daily Graphic and the influential South-African cultural journal Drum – known for recording Black life under apartheid – with which the artist established a lasting connection.

Travelling to London in 1959, the photographer quickly developed a new persona as a documentarian of the city’s 1960s culture – often on assignment for Drum – maintaining a clear focus on the human subject. The artist’s perception was, perhaps, sharpened by his status as a newcomer in the swinging centre of Britain’s new youth, fashion and music scene. Barnor was also taken by the multicultural aspects of British culture, and many photographs depict interracial romance and friendships.

Returning to Ghana in the 1970s, Barnor set up the country’s first colour photography studio, X23. His images of stylish Ghanaian youth from this period are amongst his most iconic, such as his famous shots of an assistant at Sick-Hagemeyer department store posing with coloured canisters and a model in a chequerboard black and white dress. The combined qualities of intimacy and glamour in these 1970s portraits, alongside his dazzling sense of colour, make them consistently inspiring and exciting.

In 2009, the 80-year-old photographer revealed his archive to two curators, unlocking a treasure trove of 20th century culture. This book, which includes previously unpublished images, reveals, as its publishers note: “the continuity between the past and the present, tradition and progress, and the links between generations and peoples of different contents present in Barnor’s work.”

More information on The Roadmaker here.

James Barnor: Ghanaian Modernist is showing at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery until 31 October; James Barnor: Accra / London – A Retrospective is showing at Serpentine until 22 October.

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. James Barnor, Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant, Accra, c. 1957, Courtesy Autograph
2. Ever Young studio, Accra, c. 1954. Image © James Barnor, courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
3. James Barnor, Untitled, Studio X23, Accra, 1975, Courtesy Autograph
4. James Barnor, Drum Cover Girl, Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966, Courtesy Autograph @autographabp
5. Accra, 1971. A shop assistant at the Sick-Hagemeyer store © James Barnor Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
6. Portrait of James Barnor in front of some of his photographs, Accra, 1957, Courtesy Autograph
7. Model playing drums: Constance Mulondo, Drum cover, at London University Weekend with the band The Millionaires, London, 1967