From working as a cleaner at Heathrow Airport to being the subject of a landmark exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is by any standards an extraordinary leap, but for the 90-year-old photographer James Barnor it is but another chapter in what has been a roller coaster of a life.
Although the show’s original summer scheduling has been postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown, the organisation of what the Serpentine describe a “major review of Barnor’s work as as a studio portraitist, photojournalist and black lifestyle photographer” continues.
It is the culmination of a career that began six decades ago in Barnor’s native Ghana and comes at the end of a whirlwind 10 years that has seen his work exhibited around the world, from Bamako to Boston, like an item of recently unearthed treasure.
“I call myself Lucky Jim and my greatest luck is that I have been able to live long enough to witness my own renaissance,” he tells me with a hearty laugh.
I met him at his sheltered housing flat overlooking the Grand Union Canal in Brentford a couple of weeks before the words self-isolation became part of the daily lexicon and people were still enjoying a walk along the towpath in the winter sunshine.
“It wasn’t so long ago that all my negatives were stored in boxes in there, more or less forgotten,” he says gesturing towards the bedroom door.
“The only time I took out my camera was to take snaps of my colleagues at Heathrow terminal 3 where I worked as a cleaner. They were people like me struggling to make a living,” he adds, laughing again.
Decades earlier, in the 1950s, he’d run the successful Ever Young portrait studio in Accra but also made a name for himself as a newspaper photographer charting Kwame Nkrumah’s historic campaign for self-rule. When he came to London in 1961, he lived for a while in Theobalds Rd, Holborn, using a red pillar box in Gray’s Inn Rd as a background prop for one of his famous fashion shots that were used on the covers of South Africa’s pioneering Drum magazine.
His skill and ambition were matched by his easy charm, enabling him to win people over, particularly those that mattered like Mirror owner Cecil King who visited Accra in 1950 to set up the Daily Graphic and was on the look out for local photographers.
Barnor eventually returned to Ghana but his photography business was hit by recession and in 1994 he decided to board the plane to London again. That’s when his acquaintance with Heathrow Airport went beyond the arrivals halls: “I worked there for four years and there is no corner of that place that I do not know.”
Well into his pension years and short of money, his prospects didn’t look that bright. But the luck he alluded to earlier intervened when he took up a computer course at his local adult education college. “One day I took along my photo album to show my tutor,” he recalls. “He told me I was wasting my time with computers – I was sitting on a gold mine.”
His photography went on to be included in a community arts show and recognition of his place in the history of photography slowly followed. His big break came when the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton marked 50 years of Ghana’s independence with his first ever solo exhibition in 2007. This led to Ever Young at the Autograph gallery in Shoreditch, a sweeping retrospective of his work encompassing his glass plate studio portraiture, news images of Ghana’s heady march to independence and lively Swinging Sixties shots in London, as well as the colour photography that followed his setting up of Ghana’s first colour processing plant as a technical agent for Agfa-Gevaert.
To say that the photography world was blown away is an understatement. Tate Britain, the V&A, the South African National Gallery, Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam and the African Biennale in Bamako have been among those showcasing him but he seems to have made his biggest splash in Paris, where he is looked after by the classy Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière on the Seine. In 2015 it launched a monograph of his work entitled Ever Young presenting an overview in French and English of his amazing 60-year career.
Last year was a particularly busy one. After holding court at the Musical Migrations exhibition in Paris, Barnor attended his 90th birthday celebrations at Bloomsbury’s October Gallery before jetting off to Ghana for the opening of his show at the Nobuke Foundation in East Legon, Accra.
“Of course, I get tired and I am full of aches and pains,” he admits with a cheerful shrug. “What do you expect? I am 90. I hope I will still be fit enough to fully take part in the Serpentine exhibition and also celebrate my next birthday there.”
This article first appeared in The Review, May 7