A new exhibition showcases the work of Ghanaian photographer James Barnor dating back to the early 50s
Commissioned to do a magazine fashion shoot, James Barnor thought that the pillar box in London’s Gray’s Inn Road would make a perfect backdrop. ‘The model came along wearing a red scarf and I felt it would blend in well with the post box, the sort of well known London landmark I liked to use,’ he recalls.
‘It was freezing weather and she had to wear leather gloves but she was very cheerful all the same.’
Barnor’s photo of the attractive woman with a delightfully mischievous smile went on to grace the cover of a 1967 edition of the popular African news and lifestyle magazine Drum.
It was one of a series of Drum shoots depicting glamorous looking black people in typical London settings, suggesting that they too were part of the Swinging Sixties, as far away from the image of downtrodden migrant workers as you could get.
Barnor, who lived around the corner in Theobalds Rd, Holborn, at the time, had arrived from Ghana eight years earlier to study photography.
But he was no novice with the camera having left behind a thriving career as a studio photographer and photojournalist in which he chronicled Ghanaian society in the heady days of its transition to independence.
A two-year stint at the prestigious Medway College of Art in Kent would bring about a shift of style but not approach – most of Barnor’s work has a carefree and optimistic air about it, much like the man himself.
You can see for yourself at a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Rivington Place gallery in Shoreditch that spans the late 1940s to the late ‘60s, from the Ghanaian capital Accra where change was ever in the air to London in the grip of its own transition.
The exhibition’s title, Ever Young, refers to the name of Barnor’s studios in Jamestown, one of Accra’s portside districts. ‘I called it Ever Young because I used to touch up photographs to erase lines and blemishes on people’s faces – just like Photoshop only manually,’ laughs Barnor, now a sprightly 81-year-old.
He went into business after serving a photographic apprenticeship with his uncle, himself a well-known portrait photographer, using an old-fashioned glass plate camera.
A trail of people would turn up to Ever Young, from smiling newly weds and earnest looking children kitted out for a fancy dress party to a proud female recruit of Ghana’s new police service.
‘In those days it didn’t cost much to have your photo taken so I had no shortage of customers. At first I took most of the shots outside because Ghana has plenty of daylight and, unlike electricity, it was free. When I became more established I opened what we called a night and day studio, which was a novelty then.’
But the restless Barnor liked to be on the move and would also be out on the streets with a Kodak box camera. This made him a natural candidate for a job as a freelance snapper on the Daily Graphic, which had been set up in Accra in 1950 by Daily Mirror owner Cecil King. His services were also enlisted by the South African-based Drum, the most widely read magazine in Africa at the time.
There were plenty of stories to cover. Firebrand nationalist leader Kwame Nkrumah was pressing ahead with his demand for total independence on the tail end of a campaign of nationwide strikes and protests that had landed him briefly in prison. As luck would have it Barnor had a bird’s eye view of the fast moving events as they unfolded.
‘There was open ground in front of my studio and Nkrumah would hold meetings of the CPP [Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party] there. It was a great vantage point. I was like the original paparazzi, not always welcome because I worked for what was considered a white man’s paper.’
Later, as he got to know Nkrumah, he would go the ‘old man’s’ home and capture him in more relaxed settings, and there are unique shots of him playing football or posing with Ghana’s boxing chap Ray Ankrah,
‘He was a wonderful person,’ remarks Barnor, going all misty eyed. ‘As soon as he spoke he could turn your head the other way round.’
After covering Ghana’s momentous independence celebrations in 1957, Barnor had thoughts about spreading his wings. Helped by a government grant, he travelled to England in 1959 to work at Edenbridge Colour Processing Laboratories in Kent before joining Medway College. By this time, he had acquainted himself with Drum’s London offices off Fleet Street to try out his new-found skills as a commercial photographer.
Barnor remembers his ten years in the capital fondly, acknowledging that he was in a privileged position. ‘I moved in enlightened circles so I did not have to put up with most of what other black people had to go through, though I did notice that when I sat on a bus, many people didn’t want to sit next to me,’ he smiles.
Now back living in London, he is clearly energised by the show. ‘I have been a photographer for some 60 years and this is my first major gallery exhibition, so yes, I am a happy man.’
Ever Young was presented in association with Autograph ADP and the William Du Bois Institute
Published: 21 October 2010
Photographer James Barnor