Art History

A retrospective; James Barnor

A retrospective; James Barnor

A retrospective; James Barnor

James Barnor (b1929, Accra, Ghana) founded his Ever Young studio in Jamestown, Accra, in the 1950s, after coming from a family of photographers. The modest tin-roofed structure grew into a lively community center, where people from all walks of life gathered to socialize and have their photographs taken. Barnor, who is now in his 90s, began his career as a photographer here before moving on to document important social and political shifts on two continents. His exceptional collection of work, like that of other African photographers of his time, has just recently garnered critical recognition in Europe.


Barnor’s experiences growing up under British control piqued his interest in the “motherland,” and he left Ghana for Britain in 1959 on the advice of a former teacher, AQA Archampong, who had gone to study there. Barnor arrived in London at the start of the swinging 60s, eager to study color photography and improve his abilities. He combined street photography with projects for the famous politics and lifestyle newspaper Drum, which he had began working for while living in Ghana.

A retrospective; James Barnor

Fashion shoots in London

Barnor switched to fashion shoots in London, photographing models of African ancestry for the magazine’s cover, including Erlin Ibreck and Marie Hallowi. These photos of gorgeous young ladies posing with vehicles and wearing mod minidresses are highly dated; while they may look banal now, their historical relevance in the history of black representation in visual culture cannot be disputed.

Mastery of fashion photography

Barnor’s glossy photos for Drum show a mastery of fashion photography and its traditions, but it’s his more casual, apparently off-the-cuff compositions that truly stand out. Consider the carefree image of BBC World Service broadcaster Mike Eghan jumping down the steps at Piccadilly Circus in 1967, or the amusing photograph of Barnor’s little kid being adored by three elderly ladies in Kilburn in the same year (1966). Barnor’s wife is offered ice cream in Petticoat Lane (1960), and the African bride steps out of a car driven by a grimacing white driver in a scene from his cousin’s wedding (1964).

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A communal image of postcolonial life in Ghana

Barnor left Colour Processing Laboratories in Kent in 1970 and returned to Ghana, where he founded Ghana’s first color-processing laboratory in Accra. He founded his second studio, Studio X23, in 1973, not long after. His technical talents in and out of the studio had grown highly excellent, as seen by his portraits and commercial assignments from this time period. On the Serpentine’s long walls, stunning cover girls dressed in period fashions rub shoulders with daily consumers and street performers to create a communal image of postcolonial life in Ghana in the 1970s.

A retrospective; James Barnor

A great compositional eye

A store clerk clutches a colorful assortment of plastic bottles in one classic photograph from 1971; her stance is stunning, but the portrait served a practical purpose as a color reference for Barnor’s processing facility. Barnor has a great compositional eye, although his early work’s folksy appeal is rarely equaled after 1970. Even his portraits of musicians, such as EK Nyame posing with his clarinet looking to the sky (1975), have a stiff, slightly artificial appearance.

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First solo exhibition

Barnor came to the United Kingdom in 1994, where he remained unknown until his first solo exhibition at London’s Black Cultural Archives in 2007. Since then, he’s had a slew of exhibits and books, indicating a growing interest in his work and the history of twentieth-century African photography in general. Barnor’s multi-cultural viewpoint imbued his work with a depth that is exemplified by this bustling display. We’re just just starting to know him, though, with roughly 32,000 photos in his vast library.

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