If ever there was a phrase to describe of the 60-year career of photographer James Barnor it would be staying power. As it happens, Staying Power is also the title of an exhibition of black British photography being staged by the Black Cultural Archives in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Staying Power sets out to show how individual photographers have portrayed the black British experience from the 1950s to 1990s under the broad theme ‘from protest to progress’. While most of the 17 photographers featured grew up in Britain as the children of Caribbean migrants, and as such framed their images from the margins of a hostile society, Barnor was born in Ghana in 1929 and spent 10 years in London in the 1960s working for the pioneering African news and lifestyle magazine Drum. In contrast to the gritty social realism of many of the other exhibits, his work stands out for its lightness of touch and sense of glamour.
His 1967 picture of the Ghanaian broadcaster Mike Eghan, who had a show on the BBC World Service at the time, is a case in point, depicting him on the steps of Piccadilly Circus arms akimbo against a backdrop of flashing neon advertising. It is an image that seems to sum up the sprit of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
“I always tried to capture my subject with the time and the place to show readers the kind of high life black people were experiencing in England,” Barnor says.” I wanted to show that we, too, could be part of the Swinging Sixties.”
Barnor had arrived in the UK in 1959 to study at the prestigious Medway College of Art in Kent before moving to London to work for Drum, which had offices in Fleet St. But he already had a wealth of photographic experience behind him, having run a successful portrait studio as a young man and then gone on to document Kwame Nkrumah’s momentous march to state house as the leader of black Africa’s first independent state in 1957.
Drum, which had become an important platform for a new generation of writers and photographers who were changing the way black people were represented, sent Barnor to take pictures of other black stars, including Muhammad Ali, and numerous aspiring models, one of whom would grace the front cover of a 1967 edition of the magazine.
“The model came along wearing a red scarf and I felt it would blend in well with the pillar box, the sort of well-known London landmark I liked to use,” Barnor recalls.
Barnor lived in Bloomsbury and acknowledges that he lived a life of relative privilege.”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.”
Barnor eventually returned to Ghana, where he helped open the country’s first colour-processing laboratory and later worked as an official photographer in the Castle, the seat of government at the time.
His portfolio was already overflowing with images dating back to 1953, the year he set up his Ever Young studios in Accra’s lively port-side district district of Jamestown, specialising in portraiture using an old-fashioned glass plate camera.
“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,” he laughs.
A trail of people would turn up to his studios, 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. As a body of work, they suggest the optimism and hope of a people hurrying along on their road to nationhood.
Barnor also possessed a Kodak box camera and loved to be out on the streets capturing what was going on, later joining the Daily Graphic – set up in 1950 by the UK’s Daily Mirror – as a freelance photographer. His services were also enlisted by the South African-based Drum, the most widely-read magazine in Africa at the time.
It was during this period that he had Kwame Nkrumah firmly fixed in his sights, greatly helped by the fact that Nkrumah regularly held independence campaign meetings on a patch of open ground in front of his studios.
“It was a great vantage point,” he says. “I was like the original paparazzi, not always welcome because I worked for what was considered a white man’s paper.”
But later he got to know Nkrumah and would be invited to the “old man’s” home to photograph him in more relaxed settings, and Barnor has unique shots of him playing football and posing with Ghana’s boxing chap Roy Ankrah.
Yet it has taken years for Barnor to gain any recognition, either in Ghana or the UK, where he returned to live. “There are very few photographers with my experience of both plate glass and hand held cameras, of studio work and photo-journalism, yet I had to wait until I was 80 before I was properly recognised.”
This came with a major retrospective exhibition of his output at the Rivington Place gallery in London by Autograph ABP, which has spawned immense interest in his work as well as several other shows, including a co-show, Another London, at Tate Britain in 2012. A solo exhibition is due to take place in Paris later this year.
While Barnor is delighted at the latest turn of events, the frustration of being virtually overlooked for so many years still hangs in the air: “It is just one of those things,” he finally shrugs. “It is lucky that I held on to my negatives and it is lucky that I have lived so long to tell the tale.”
Staying Power: Narratives of Black British Experience is showing at the Black Cultural Archives until June 20, and the Victoria and Albert Museum until May 24. James Barnor will take part in day-long conference at the V&A about the contribution of black Britons to British culture and society and the art of photography on May 23
This article is also published in africabriefing.org