As James Barnor proudly held court at Paris’ exclusive Clémentine de la Féronnière gallery last week where a new exhibition coincided with the launch of a book of his photography, it is hard to believe that 20 years ago he was working as a cleaner at Heathrow’s terminal 3.
“I worked there for four years and there is no corner of that place that I do not know,” he laughs. “The only time I took out my camera was to take snaps of my colleagues, people like me struggling to make a living.”
Decades earlier he had run a successful portrait studio in the Ghanaian capital Accra and also worked as a photojournalist before spending 10 years in London on the job. The future looked bright as he returned to Ghana to set up the country’s first colour processing facility and a new studios.
But a sharp economic downturn in the late ’80s spelt doom for his business and he decided to take his chances and relocate to London in 1994, stuffing all his negatives in boxes underneath his bed at his new home – a sheltered housing block overlooking the Regent Canal in Brentford, west London.
And there they might have remained but for his decision to learn about computing. “I happened to show my tutor my photo album and he told me I was wasting my time with computers – I was sitting on a gold mine.”
His work went on to be included in a community arts forum and recognition of his place in the history of photography slowly followed. His big break came at the ripe old age of 79 when the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, south London, marked 50 years of Ghana’s independence with an exhibition of his work in 2007.
The father-of-eight went on to link up with Autograph ABP, which presented a show at Harvard before launching a major solo retrospective on him in 2010.
Since then, there’s been no looking back with Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Gallery in Cape Town among those showcasing him. This year alone there have been three joint exhibitions, including one in Amsterdam.
And now Paris. Organised in conjunction with Autograph ABP, it is titled Ever Young after the studios he opened in 1953.”It’s really super,” says a beaming Barnor. “I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to be discovered but I am happy to say that it is never too late.”
Adding to his delight, the beautifully produced monograph of the same name, which appears in bilingual format, was presented earlier to the Ghanaian president, John Mahama, who was in Paris on an official engagement. “Although nothing was said it will hopefully lead to something happening in Ghana, which up until now has shown little interest in me.”
That is surprising since his early work is a history lesson in itself, revealing a nation on the move as it stepped out onto the road to independence, symbolised by the proud and confident gaze of his sitters at Ever Young.
Barnor also proved versatile, setting aside his plate glass camera for a Kodak to carry out assignments for Ghana’s Daily Graphic newspaper. “That’s how I got to know Kwame Nkrumah,” he says referring to the country’s founding father. The result was a series of landmark images of Nkrumah’s forward march to state house.
Restless and ambitious, Barnor decided to travel to the UK, arriving in 1959, not long after race riots had convulsed the nation in Notting Hill and Nottingham. But as a privileged ex-colonial subject who had just landed a series of commissions for the pioneering Drum magazine, Barnor knew little of this.
His work from this period documents another society in transition as Britain shook off its post-war gloom to embrace the Swinging Sixties. “I wanted to show that black people could be part of this too,” he remarks.
Barnor’s images, a mix of glamorous fashion shoots and celebrities like Muhammad Ali in action, reveal no sign of racial tension or marginality but, according to the book, champion “the changing representation of blackness” as well as Britain’s emergence as a multicultural nation.
Now, at an amazingly robust 86, Barnor is not done yet, confidently predicting that more doors are due to open for him. Little wonder why there’s still a skip in his step as if the name Ever Young were designed for him as well.
James Barnor: Ever Young, Clémentine de la Féronnière/Autograph ABP, is published by RRB Publishing, price £35. Exhibition continues at Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Rue St Louis en l’Île, Paris, until November 21
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal on October 15, 2015