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James Barnor's photographic legacy

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

What hit me most about visiting Frederick Seton James Barnor's exhibition (I’ve been twice now) was how familiar the images of strangers were to me.

© James Barnor

For those of you that haven’t visited the London showcase at the Serpentine Galleries, you’ll find iconic images of Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Muhammad Ali, JB Danquah and Mike Eghan – the BBC’s first Black broadcaster.

But what was even more stunning were the images of everyday men, women and children that represent just a slice of Uncle Barnor’s photographic career. A career spanning over 60 years and extending from Accra to London and back.

I’ve never met the faces he displays in the exhibition, and yet, Uncle Barnor captures my childhood, my family and culture through every smile, stare, pose, outfit and hairstyle.

Photo albums

If you’ve grown up in a Black household, you’ll, no doubt, be familiar with those classic photo albums brimming with people posed in front of cars, or parents wearing the latest platforms and flared trousers. You may have an image of that relative in a studio posing with a random object and a curtain or painted scene behind them.

Nothing in my hand (printed cloth), Ever Young Studio Accra, © James Barnor 1953, Courtesy Autograph, London

It is that familiarity that seems to emanate in Uncle Barnor’s work. And it probably explains why, walking through the exhibition felt as though I was thumbing through my family albums again and soaking up so much of my history, culture, and heritage.

Cultural pride

I can’t lie – I was welling up with pride to be able to see aspects of my country and heritage on display for the world to see. The exhibition, which runs until 24 October 2021, was my portal into a time that my parents, grandparents and great grandparents would have lived - just before Ghana’s independence.

Image by James Barnor

It was a place where afros and the par-boi hairstyle were the norm; where adult women threaded their hair or had no issue sporting cornrows and Bantu knots.

It was a time when Ghana was on the cusp of its golden age of music with bands like The Tempos, Osofo Dadzie and others being celebrated for their rich musical contributions alongside our traditional sounds.

Uncle Barnor was there capturing them all.

Barnor’s beginnings

His entry into photography is both humbling and striking too, and is a reflection of how talent mixed with being in the right place at the right time and having the right networks can propel your career.

Image of James Barnor's book © MisBeee Writes

Born in Accra in 1929, Uncle Barnor came from a family of photographers so some might say that it was inevitable that he too would become one. But, as I learnt from the book ‘James Barnor – Accra/London – A Restrospective’ that accompanies the exhibition, he was on course to become a policeman.

If not for his cousin and prominent photographer J.P.D.Dodoo, where Uncle Barnor served as an apprenticeship, we might well be telling a different story today.

Baby Brownie

As well as his cousin, another family member - Julius Aikins - was the one that gave him his first camera – a Kodak Baby Brownie. It was this cousin that also gave him the opportunity to work in a studio and capture the stunning portraits of people in and around the Accra environs.

Today, the thought of a hand-held camera being avant garde is ludicrous but in the early '50s, it was considered almost taboo to use such a small instrument to capture imagery.

According to Uncle Barnor, it was because the believed that he would not be able to concentrate on what he was being taught, he says in the book.

But it was the convenience of using this hand-held device that allowed Uncle Barnor to add another string to his bow. The Baby Brownie allowed him to capture images on the move. This allowed him to develop his news and caption-writing skills when the British Daily Mirror head-hunted him to supply images for the newly-created Daily Graphic.

For Uncle Barnor, the world outside his studio created a wealth of possibilities and he is quoted as calling Makola market his 'second studio'. Anyone who has been to the vibrant market will know why.

According to him, it was the place that he could get a colour shot to feature in the newspaper that showed the women at work, and the colourful way they displayed their wares.

Ghanaian notables

Life as a roving reporter exposed him to a host of Ghanaian notables.. You’ll see some homely moments with boxing champion Roy Ankrah and his family listening to vinyl records and another breakfast scene with the familiar brand Cornflakes on the table.

Roy & Rebecca Ankrah & daughter at leisure, 1952

There’s a great image of pre-independence-day Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah kicking a football. Dr Kwame Nkrumah saw the value of publicity and encouraged images to be taken, Uncle Barnor says in the book. He was even there on the night of Ghana’s Independence and was commissioned by the Telegraph, to record the momentous occasion.

Making history

Uncle Barnor’s hard work, expertise and affable personality brought him to the attention of South Africa Jim Bailey - the founder of the iconic Drum publication and Anthony Smith, the editor of the Ghana edition. That connection was his springboard to him producing covers for the magazine in Ghana and later in the UK. Also while in Ghana in 1953, he established his Ever Young studio in Jamestown, Accra.

Rosemarie Thompson 'Funflower Rosemarie', Drum cover girl, London 1967

London life

Encouraged by a friend to experience life in London, Uncle Barnor’s muse shifted from Accra to London and various parts of England but Black people still took centre stage. Still working for the Drum but in London, he featured cover shots of Black women, including Rosemarie Thompson and Ugandan teenager Erlin Ulbreck.

Now much older, Erlin shares her story of being discovered by Uncle Barnor in the swinging 60s. What touched me most about her words was how she never considered herself to be beautiful because, her beauty standard, as a young girl at a convent school in Rhyl, Wales, were the white girls around her.

Friends & networks

Uncle Barnor lived with his friend and mentor and experienced one of my passions – rock-climbing. He also boosted his skillset at Medway College of Art, Kent, and learnt to be a colour technician at Colour Processing Laboratories (CLP) in Edenbridge, one of the leading colour processing laboratories in the UK - at the time.

Interestingly, he explains that he was shielded from a lot of the racism of English life because of his supportive network of English mentors and friends. And also, being a colour technician meant he spent the time in the back room developing the images. 'That meant he was not out chasing images…,' he shares in the book. 'You couldn’t be a black photographer because you couldn’t tell a white person what to do.'

Salah Day, Accra, Kokomlemle, 1973

He later took the skill of adding colour to images back to Ghana working for Agfa-Gevaert. where he established a colour processing lab and later established the Studio X23 in Accra.

‘Colour really changed people’s ideas about photography,’ he said in the book. ‘Kente is a Ghanaian woven fabric with any different colours, and people wanted their photographs taken after church, or in town wearing this cloth, so the news spread quickly.’

Uncle Barnor continued to carve a path for himself well into the 70s, taking on commercial jobs and splitting his time between photography and managing a young band call Fee Hi, that later went on to perform in Italy. According to the book, although Uncle Barnor was never a professional musician, in his schooldays he had been a flautist and saw that working with youngsters was his way of giving something back.

Back to London

He eventually returned to London in the 90s, where he lives till today. And as many of us know, it was only in this last decade or so that the true extent of his legacy has come to the fore.

Uncle Barnor's contributions to chronicling so much of Ghana's past must be applauded because prior to him, there have been few indigenous Ghanaians to have had access to the technology and the skills.

The history of photography in what is today Ghana dates back to the late 1860s when it was brought over by the French. It wasn't until about a decade later that names including three Lutterodt brothers: Gerhardt, George and A.G, followed by J.P Decker, Francis Joaque and and Neils Walwin Holms - all with a mix of indigenous and European ancestry all started to enter the world of photography.

I even discovered from my dad, that my grandfather dabbled into photography and owned a shop in Akim Oda, Eastern Region, in the 1950s where he would also sell film and equipment sourced from Germany.

Apparently, people would beg my grandad to open his shop on a Saturday and sell some to them but being a staunch Seventh Day Adventist, nothing would move him to break his Sabbath!

If you live in London or plan to be there before the exhibition ends, come and see the images for yourself. You never know, you may discover a long-lost relative or something as precious about your past.

* All images are taken by James Barnor and come courtesy of The Autograph

Have you been to the exhibition? What were your thoughts?

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