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James Barnor: Life In Colour For Ghana’s First Photojournalist

BENJAMIN OMOIKE

James Barnor, the 93-year-old Ghanaian photo master, has shot against the shifting tectonic plates of Africa’s colonial liberation and Britain’s Swinging Sixties and Windrush generation: political, sports and media personalities; fashion and album covers; the African diaspora community; and everyday folk. His intimate images possess a formalism in their framing and sumptuousness in their prints – but most of all, there is love.

“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).

Portrait of women in formal wear in London.

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.

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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.

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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.

“Dennis said, ‘You must go to school’,” recalled Barnor. “ ‘You must compare your work to others’ … I had 10 years in Ghana as a photographer. Why should I go to school? But I kept quiet. I went to school.” At Medway, he formalised his training in portraiture, fashion, and technique. After completing his studies, in 1963, Barnor was hired by the college as a technical assistant while also continuing as a printer with CPL.

It was a difficult time to be Black in Britain. Those encouraged to emigrate from the crown’s colonies were ultimately wanted for their sweat and labour only. The Commonwealth Act and other conservative laws limiting immigrants’ rights were being legislated. Said Barnor of that time and of Kemp: “That man changed what otherwise could have been disastrous for me. During the ’60s, Black man, where to live, where to … Oh, it was terrible … Nobody would employ you to be a photographer. What would you do? Would you be in the studio convincing a sitter to smile – or touching a lady’s dress? No. If anything, you’d be in the darkroom … There were too many photographers around to look for a Ghanaian, Black photographer.”

Barnor began landing local assignments for Drum as well as the Trinidad-based magazine Flamingo, including several covers. In an interview with Afua Hirsch in Frieze (May 19, 2021), Barnor noted, “I remember travelling from Kent to London one time and seeing Drum, with my picture on the cover, on the stalls. I said to myself: ‘Yes, at least I’ve done it.’ You know, in America, Black photographers were taking pictures of Black people for magazines. But, in England, it wasn’t like that. There were no Black photographers at all.”

Belonging

It was a transitional and turbulent time, but Barnor’s Black subjects in contrast show a oneness with the space and place. They do not merely pose – they inhabit the frame, their feet firmly planted. Despite a Britain that wished Black people gone, in Barnor’s pictures, their belonging is not a question – it is a fact.

The photographer also quietly subverted these images, placing Black people front and centre before beloved British and European iconography. When asked if the subversion was intentional, Barnor smiled slyly and nodded his head, saying, “Yes, yes. Definitely.”

In the black-and-white medium shot Eva, London (1960s), now in London’s Tate Modern collection, the sitter, her back to the camera, wears an elaborately smoothed and styled wig and a drop pearl earring, as she turns her head to look at us with a knowing smile. It is an almost mirror image of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring – but in this instance, the “girl” is Black.

Catherine E McKinley, whose African Lookbook provides a layered photographic history of African women from 1870 to 1970, said: “When I saw Eva in 2010, I was arrested. There are so many reasons to be stopped by Eva. For me, it was her very clear eye and the barely perceptible quiver in her smile. But it was also the owning of something powerful on her head – a self-knowledge in her cross of a very-up-to-the-minute Ghanaian tekua style hair of Fanti society ladies and the British and American beehive. That’s James Barnor: You are welcome to dwell in beauty, but for those who choose to really look, it’s the subjectivity, the actor, breaking through. And these are Ghanian women actors, for the most part, who impart knowledge of an unknown UK.”

In another black-and-white photo, Mike Eghan, a Ghanaian journalist then with the BBC World Service, extends his arms as if taking flight in London’s Piccadilly Circus, an international crossroads accentuated with Coca-Cola, Dr Zhivago, airlines, and Chinese-restaurant signs (1967). (Or perhaps Eghan was simply embracing it all – before a policeman, Barnor said, abruptly tapped the photographer to announce, “We don’t do that here.”) In Battersea, model Rema Nelson, parts her lips for a shred of cotton candy before the sign “Do” (1966).

In a colour image, Black model Erlin Ibreck breaks taboos as she steps out of a Jaguar, that acme of English status symbols (1966). Other Black models, wearing smart Western dresses and heels and toting structured Western handbags, in defiance of class (and race) expectations, stand in front of iconic English phone booths, Tube stations and double-decker buses, as if claiming them.

In the Serpentine Gallery’s book James Barnor: Accra/London, which accompanies the exhibit, the celebrated Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye quoted the visionary Nigerian art curator and critic Okwui Enwezor when summing up Barnor’s British images: “It’s that moment of not only being present but also of being seen that ruptures the sense of possession of a particular space that is thought to be European.”

Of working with Barnor, Ibreck noted in the preface to Accra/London, “James is a storyteller, which I think is one of his great gifts for gaining trust and putting you at ease. His approach in those initial sittings was to draw out my awareness that the communication was between him as the photographer, the camera, and me, and that it needed to be a partnership. There was less a sense that he was directing me than that he was encouraging me to communicate with him.” (Barnor described working with Ibreck as “jubilation”.)

Drum placed Black women on the covers of a serious magazine and on a cosmopolitan and Pan-African world stage. Ibreck continued, “Drum featured alternative images of African beauty. Working with James was exhilarating because it gave me the feeling that we were conspiring together to shatter accepted images of beauty, and to replace them with new and just as valid representations.”

Barnor excitedly shared with me a beloved image from that era, of a smiling Black woman wearing a conical hat that pierces the photo from its centre to its top right corner. The shape is echoed in the conical earring of the woman frame right. The central subject’s pink dots play against the green checks worn by the person adjacent. The print offers up magic, not only with its wizard-like hat (which is in focus, despite the crowd’s moving), but in Barnor’s dexterously capturing the women’s varying skin tones as well as the rear subject’s hair texture – all against a black background. (It’s a fact of colour film that it was originally calibrated for white skin, making Black skin challenging to reproduce accurately.)

Several of his 1960s images are cinematic: In a wide field, centre frame, a young woman from the Tunbridge Wells Overseas Club wearing a bright red sweater and oversize glasses sips, smiling, on a Coke (1968). Barnor’s wife, Elizabeth, in a red sweater and headwrap sits on a white car while his son Bernard leans against the open door of a blue one, foreground, the geometrics of the auto windows threading through half the frame’s middle, and then echoing in the other half’s chain-link fence (1968-69). Actor Marie Hallowi, legs crossed atop an upward-angled white convertible, an open red umbrella above her, leans in to engage a mysterious ginger-haired man (1966).

‘How the Black body appears in colour’
Despite his Drum covers and being in demand as a colour printer, Barnor made the decision to return to Accra in 1969 to manage Agfa’s new colour lab, intent on promoting what was for Africa a new medium and its possibilities. Said the photographer during his Zoom talk at MASI Lugano, on March 15, 2022, “I’m sure there were one or two people doubting whether a Black man could do it.”

His prints from the time are suffused with saturated hues – also an effort on Barnor’s part to demonstrate the expressiveness of colour technology. Barnor’s young daughters Mavis and Mary pose with an Agfa beachball in an image that captures the jewel tones of their swimsuits and the rich colours of their skin. A shop assistant wears a minidress while proffering multicolour photochemical containers in front of a wall bisected by the green of her dress.

Throughout his work, Barnor’s women stand on equal footing with European women, but also with the photographer himself. They are never objectified. Many are symbols of strength (often shot from a low angle): from Accra’s first female policewoman (1954) to a defiant woman posing in a pink mini and shimmering silver boots (1967) to a young girl in kente cloth with an Oduku hairstyle and markings at a puberty rite celebration (1970s) to three Ghanaian lawyers gathered in their minidresses after a military trial for an attempted coup d’état (1973).

The photographer’s female subjects of the ’60s and ’70s exude a signature breeziness and a letting down of their guard before his camera. Yet Barnor leaves them anything but vulnerable. They fill the frame with presence and expansive colour, from their dresses and African cloth to their radiant skin. As Barnor explained to Emma Firth (CNN, June 19, 2020), “My learning, and everything, is around how the Black body appears in colour.”

There is also a strong sculptural sense to Barnor’s picturing his subjects: backs, shoulders, necks (often turned) feature prominently. A woman’s back fans forward from the lower right frame, the perfectly placed seashell-like twists of her hair reflected in the smooth curl of her arm against which she rests – the evenly lit black-and-white image as much a fantastic landscape as it is a portrait. A line of Accra fishermen in what feels a lowering sun pull a boat to shore, the bend of their backs echoed in the boat’s bow and reflected in the water beneath them. Peter Dodoo torques his upper torso while his legs taper and twist below him, in a 1956 yoga pose at Ever Young. A young woman at a Drum party (1950s) leans against the curved prow of a ship, her concave belly its opposite. She wears Western clothes that still appear modern today: hip sunglasses, shorts, a diaphanous blouse over a decorative bra.

Discussion of Barnor’s images can be too easily or often limited to the impressive history and dignitaries he has captured. But to do so is to overlook the breadth and rigour of his talent, and the palimpsest of symbolism in his pictures.

Sign play and music weave their way through his work. Musician Love Nortey leans against the sign “Lutterodt” in Accra. The image, which became an album cover, is a nod to the father and son George and Albert Lutterodt, who founded the country’s first photo studio in Jamestown, in 1876, and gave rise to a family dynasty of studios that existed in Accra until 1945.

There were other noted Ghanaian photographers, too: Neils Walwin Holm set up an atelier in Accra in 1883 (and then went on to Lagos and London). His son JAC Holm opened his studio in Accra in 1919. Felicia Abban, Ghana’s first female professional photographer, opened hers in 1955. Yet James Barnor: Stories, the book that accompanies the LUMA exhibition, oddly excludes them in its timeline, which begins with the late 1860s, noting, “Photography is spread throughout the West African region by European colonialists.” But the medium also travelled via and was innovated by Africans, who, in the late 1800s were among the first to set up their studios on the continent, plying its coastal cities east and west, taking pictures and making the medium their own. That is, Barnor was born into not only a familial legacy of photography but a cultural one, too.

Barnor left Agfa after three years. He opened a second studio, X23, in 1973, shooting several record album covers. He photographed for the US embassy and its magazine Amannee (Amanne3 in Twi, meaning “message”) from 1977 to 1982. He also managed a children’s musical group, Fee Hi, and went on tour with it to Italy in 1983.

But, noted the Guardian (“Party Time!,” November 19, 2019): “Barnor spent the next 24 years in Ghana, struggling to make a living before returning to England to find that much had changed. ‘I was a cleaner in schools and at Heathrow airport,’ he says. ‘I was 60 and nearing pensionable age, and already photography was not the same as it had been: Everybody could use a small camera. Even the colour processing lab said the Japanese invasion had spoiled their work.’”

“When I was living [in London], it was a time of my film and prosperity. I shouldn’t have left,” Barnor explained to me. He was working full-time at CPL, shooting for Drum and doing private jobs for the Ghanaian or diaspora community, he said. “I shouldn’t have gone back to Ghana at all, but the love of giving back, which took me to do the colour, made me go back.”

‘I want it to be perfect’

In 2009, Barnor’s work came to attention in an exhibition in West London, where it was seen by Autograph, the London-based visual arts organisation and space, which held Barnor’s solo show in 2010 and acquired 100 images. Together with Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, in Paris, it published the weighty monograph Ever Young in 2015. The Tate included several pictures in their collection. There was the Serpentine Gallery’s James Barnor: Accra/London show and book in 2021. Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, in Paris, added 70 photos to their collection. And RRB and Maison CF, which co-published the book James Barnor: Stories, also collaborated on another photo book, James Barnor – The Roadmaker, in 2021. Barnor’s work will also join LUMA Foundation’s permanent collection.

Barnor currently lives in a council flat for seniors in West London. In 2021, Clémentine de la Féronnière, his French publisher, who has undertaken the arduous task of digitising and categorising the majority of his negatives, estimated their number to be at 100,000. That so many survived is miraculous considering both shifting climates and Barnor’s life circumstances. Negatives – stored in Tupperware, plastic bags, suitcases, including glass plates, 120mm, 35mm, black-and-white and colour – filled Barnor’s home.

Of all my questions, the one of how many negatives he had amassed clearly vexed him.

“That I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know that for a long time. When we talk about images, I worked as a studio photographer for 10 years. When I sat there using a plate camera, a field camera with plate negatives … Those negatives, 10 years’ work, have been thrown away because I stayed in [London in] the ’60s … And my negatives were in somebody’s way, so he threw them away … With what we are working with now, can you imagine? And they’d been thrown away because they were too heavy. They were large, they were taking space.”

Barnor admitted he was so excited about photographing Nkrumah on Independence night, that he did not think twice about handing over his negatives to Bailey to forward to Drum’s Johannesburg office. He never saw those again. The US embassy retained the negatives the photographer had shot for them. “So I don’t want to think of how many negatives I have, you know – it would make me think of how many I would have had,” Barnor said.

Barnor mastered what some might claim as colonial technology to picture a reality for Africans and people of African descent. He stepped beyond the work of celebrated African photographers like Seydou Keita and Malik Sidibé in his having shot internationally, and in his facility to slide freely from portraiture to photojournalism to fashion and even landscape, and from black-and-white to colour, from Black subjects to white. In 2019, he established the James Barnor Foundation. (It will award its first prize, in 2022, to a West African photographer.) He shot Vogue Italia’s March 2022 cover, the first Black photographer to do so. It was inspired by his iconic image of Mike Eghan.

“You know, I don’t know I’d describe myself as a photographer or artist or fashion photographer or newspaper [photographer] or technician. Because I think I’m more of a technician,” Barnor told me. “Anything I want, I want it to be perfect. When I’m taking a picture, I like perfection. You use the camera properly … In other words, you get to know how the camera works and how I can get the best from it. Then I’m going. How to develop the film and printing. When I’m printing, I’m particular. Even though that is not the best. I always like perfection. So I like technique – technique of taking the picture, the technique of doing that – more than the artistic side.”

When asked at the end of his MASI Lugano talk what he believed was the secret that ran through his images – after speaking of technique, attentiveness, chance – Barnor responded, “I must have been given something which is different … and that is how I view my fellow human beings … the approach to which I want to use things to help others, when maybe I myself am hungry … I think all these things affect the way I take pictures, or the way I live. And that cannot be described.”

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