James Barnor Life in colour for Ghana’s first photojournalist

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“I never saw myself as separated from my clients, my subjects,” Barnor explained candidly via video interview from his London home. “I want to be part of them, and I want them to be part of me.” His carefully composed mise en scène – the artist pre-visualises his pictures – is as much about Barnor’s collusion with his subjects as they are about the subjects themselves.

From July 4 until September 22, LUMA Arles, the arts centre, will spotlight James Barnor: Stories. Pictures from the Archive (1947-87), including never-before-seen images and a book of the same title, at the international photo festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, in France. The show runs concurrent with London’s Serpentine Gallery’s exhibition of the artist’s work, James Barnor: Accra/London – a Retrospective, now at Museo d’arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI Lugano), in Italy, and later travelling to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (opening May 2023).

It has been a long road for Barnor, whose life, in his telling – he is an animated and heartfelt raconteur – is like a feature film, and whose long-overdue recognition did not arrive until he was almost 80.

‘I had a darkroom and somewhere to sleep’
Barnor was born on June 6, 1929, in Jamestown, Accra, then Gold Coast. When he was 16, a beloved teacher, AQA Acheampong, recommended he become editor of his primary school magazine. The weekly, written and edited by Barnor and then hand-copied by another student, was pinned by the headmaster to the notice board, where it was read by the entire school.

When once, during exams, Barnor failed to produce an edition, he received lashes. “It shows how important [the magazine] was,” Barnor said. “And it was so important that it elevated my presence in the school to another level.” His crafts teacher Emanuel M Odonkor gave him his first camera, a Kodak Baby Brownie, around 1946.

Barnor, who did not attend secondary school, had originally intended to teach basket weaving and music, two of his loves. Instead, in 1947, he became an apprentice for his cousin JP Dodoo, then a well-known Accra portrait photographer, from whom he learned the big-plate camera, as well as for another cousin, Julius Aikins, who worked in the darkroom for West African Photographic Services. Aikins introduced Barnor to darkroom technique and photojournalism, and spurred a way of seeing and doing beyond the confines of the studio.

Carrying a smaller camera, Barnor went in search of images in the market and streets, and eventually, with an uncle’s equipment – which included a big-plate camera and a painted backdrop – set up his own outdoor studio. (Indoor studios were as scarce then as light and electricity.) “I started in 1950, and then in a small corner I had a darkroom and somewhere to sleep,” said Barnor. The experience of shooting outdoors rendered him an expert of natural lighting, especially when it came to Black skin, which requires a strong understanding of the subtleties of skin tones and balancing of highlights and shadows.

That year, Barnor also became the Daily Graphic’s – and the country’s – first photojournalist. He shot Ghana’s nascent independence, as well as his sister’s new dresses. Recalled Barnor, “When I worked for the Daily Graphic from the ’50s, and also freelance, I had to take photographs of girls and especially my sister. My big sister was fashion this, and anytime she wore a dress, I took a picture and decided to sell some to the paper. Even though I was doing that, I wasn’t quite a fashion photographer … I did have covers, you know, front page.”

He photographed Kwame Nkrumah’s release from prison and also shot for Black Star, the photo agency. But it is not his picture of Nkrumah, who would go on to be Ghana’s first president, or of boxing champ Roy “the Black Flash” Ankrah that is his favourite but the one-time image of a baby catching his eye while spontaneously pushing up on all fours that Barnor captured, perfectly in focus, on his large-format camera. (This motion was a first for the baby, who never repeated it.)

In 1953, Barnor set up his own photo studio in the fishing port of Jamestown. He named it Ever Young after the Norse myth of Iduna he had read as a school exercise, as well for the photo retouching his customers demanded to take years off their appearance. The studio became a sort of impromptu social centre where he also taught children photography.

Music, especially highlife – a combination of traditional Ghanaian rhythms, Trinidadian calypso, and jazz – was intrinsic to his work method and to setting the mood in the studio. “I always had some music going almost every time … The feeling of readiness or pleasure or jubilation comes in when you go to a place where there’s music. Whatever you have [he touches his heart] that is upsetting, as soon as you go in and there is some music, you start to step in your mind.”

When asked about his process and whether he directed his photo subjects, Barnor replied, “First I try to see what is coming from the subject. I try to see what the subject is wearing that needs to be pronounced or projected. Even if it’s a walking stick, if it’s a shoe … Ladies want to show everything. Men don’t bother too much … Honestly, if I saw anything – a new fabric or a new dress, a new design – I tried to let the person pose so I could capture that. If her hair is styled, the emphasis is on the style. I start with the model. Then work out what I can get to bring out the best.”

Drum magazine
It was through Ever Young that Barnor met Jim Bailey, a co-founder of Drum, the influential anti-apartheid and Black culture magazine that built the careers of several early, noted Black photojournalists. “We fell for one another,” said Barnor. Bailey also hired the photographer to shoot for Drum. Together they would organise Drum parties in the studio and on the nearby beach. Barnor, on a last-minute walk urged by Bailey, captured an impromptu shot of Nkrumah on Ghana’s first night of independence in 1957.

With Ghana’s birth, an entourage of world press descended on the capital, and Barnor became bedazzled by their equipment (including its relatively small size). He decided to go to London, in 1959, “to learn how it’s done by professionals,” prompted, too, by the encouragement of Acheampong, who preceded him and wrote, “London is the place for you.”

In London, Barnor developed a friendship with Dennis Kemp, of Kodak Lecture Service, who helped pave his way. “He was a different person altogether,” remembered Barnor. “And he made my staying and living in England possible. Or different from any other Black people … We fell in love straightaway.” (When Barnor recalls the people he met and worked with during his lifetime, he radiates, and the word “love” often arises.)

It was also with Kemp, on a visit together to a photo exhibit at Royal Albert Hall, that Barnor was introduced to colour film – which was nonexistent at the time in Africa. “Can I learn this?” Barnor eagerly inquired of a random man tending the show – and who happened to be the head of Colour Processing Laboratories (CPL), in Kent, a leading colour printer in the UK. Barnor was hired. But Kemp also pressed him to apply to Medway College of Art, where Barnor was accepted.

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