A tribute to one of Ghana's most pioneering photographers
James Barnor (b.1929) is now widely recognised as one of Ghana's pioneering photographers. By the time the country had attained political independence in 1957, Barnor had emerged as a formidable photographer. And throughout the years, he has been there with his camera to witness the development of the nation. Barnor's career covers a remarkable period in history, bridging continents and photographic genres to create a transatlantic narrative marked by his passionate interest in people and cultures. Through the medium of portraiture, Barnor’s photographs represent societies in transition: Ghana moving towards its independence and London becoming a cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis.
James Barnor: A Retrospective trailer Nubuke Foundation
In 2019, Nubuke Foundation hosted a retrospective exhibition devoted to James Barnor's work.
"The thing about the camera is [that] it brings families together: weddings, baptisms, [and] special occasions. Over fifty percent of my work as a photographer is [about] families - after all, the images I take are to remember or record these moments: that's all we have."
Ivy Barnor, eldest sister (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
Along with his contemporaries in other parts of Africa – Seydou Keïta in Mali, Van Leo in Egypt or Rashid Mahdi in Sudan – Barnor started his career by opening a photographic portrait studio and called it 'Ever Young studio'. It was frequented by a diverse clientele representing all aspects of society.
Wedding, Unknown, Holy Trinity Cathedral (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
In the early 1950s, 'Ever Young studio' in Jamestown, Accra, was visited by civil servants and dignitaries, yoga students and college professors, performance artists and newlyweds.
Nii Ayi, wedding guest, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Accra (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
Barnor was well-versed in making his clients feel at ease, through vibrant conversation and a background of popular music, creating a unique bond between photographer and sitter.
"Ghana has such a fascinating history with traditional governance and political leadership: I photographed police officers in the 1950s and 1970s, to rallies of [Kwame Nkrumah's] Convention People's Party and the opposition National Liberation Movement."
Margaret Dartey II (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
Barnor captured intimate moments of luminaries and key political figures, including Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah as he pushed for pan-African unity, photographing the leader on several special occasions.
"I also documented political figures such as [Opposition Leader] Dr. J.B. Danquah and Mr. Jerry John Rawlings [the longest serving president of Ghana]."
Policeman directing traffic, High Street Accra (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
Not only was James Barnor engaged as the first photojournalist to work with the Daily Graphic – a newspaper brought to Ghana by the British media group, the Daily Mirror.
Farewell Durbar in honour of Governor General, Sir Charles Noble Arden-Clarke, Cape Coast (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
He was also regularly commissioned by Drum magazine – South Africa’s influential anti-apartheid journal for lifestyle and politics – for whom he photographed several news features, including a staged nuclear family breakfast featuring Gold Coast’s champion boxer Roy Ankrah, aka The Black Flash.
National Liberation Movement, Political Rally, Kumasi (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
In 1959, two years after Ghana became independent from colonial rule, Barnor moved to London, then a bourgeoning multicultural European capital to deepen his photographic knowledge. There, he discovered colour photography and enrolled on a two-year course at Medway College of Art while still shooting for Drum magazine; several of his photographs were published as covers and distributed internationally.
CPP dispatch riders (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
During London’s “swinging sixties”, Barnor eloquently captured the mood of the time, and the African diaspora’s experiences in the city, including BBC radio journalist Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus. He also photographed celebrities, such as Muhammad Ali minutes before his match against Brian London at Earl’s Court.
"Everything we do comes down to belonging. This is all [that] we have: our humanity and how we take care of each other. Despite our differences, all is well when you have around you who care. Community means more than 'family': it is the cultural groups, markets, associations and friends who we encounter throughout our lives that matter."
Women’s cultural group (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
His years in London were equally punctuated by his first encounters with a multinational cohort of aspiring models and Drum cover girls.
Osekre & Friend (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
The Drum cover girls would later pose for him against the backdrop of the city’s most iconic monuments, thus becoming fashion icons at the meeting of cultures.
Birthday celebration, Mr Kotey, Accra (2019) by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
Towards the end of the decade Barnor was recruited and trained as a representative for Agfa-Gavaert, before returning to Ghana in 1969 where he opened the first colour processing laboratory and studio X23 in Accra. For the next two decades, he worked independently as well as for several government agencies in Ghana. Today Barnor is retired and lives in Brentford, London.
A Luminary Talk with James Barnor (2019) by Tarimobowei EguleOriginal Source: Nubuke FoundationNubuke Foundation
James Barnor's incredible work spans more than six decades. His life and legacy continues to inspire and is of great importance to Ghana.