James Barnor not only changed the face of African photography, but he captured it – and I had the great pleasure to hear all about it from him, amongst a collection of his work, at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford (10 August 2013).
Born in 1929 in Ghana, Barnor became his country’s first photojournalist in the 1950s, and then in the 1960s established the country’s first colour processing lab. He was also a pioneer in Britain. Moving to London in the late 1950s, not long after Ghana achieved independence from the colonies, he was one of very few black photographers working in the west, let alone in England. He explained how it was impossible as a black person to work in a studio in England. How it wasn’t seen as right for a black man to photograph white families. If you did manage to get a job it would have been in the dark room and it was highly unlikely to have a prospects beyond the back office.
These are things he is quite rightly very proud off and it helps to contextualise the images shown in the exhibition with the times in which they were taken.
Barnor trained in portrait photography, taking a two year apprenticeship with a leading studio photographer in the city of Accra, J.P. Dodoo. He recalls the huge camera he used in his master’s studio and how it turned everything upside down. It was where his love for portraiture and group photography began.
Once his apprenticeship was completed in 1949, he set out to establish his own business and in the process was recommended for the country’s first new style newspaper The Daily Graphic. It was printed on a rotary press rather than a printing press, which meant for the first time there was a need for photographs to go with the news stories. James was the man for the job because by that stage he’d gotten himself a small camera that he could easily carry, and he was up for running about after the story.
By 1953 he had officially opened his own studio – Ever Young. Sat on a main drag in the city, near night clubs and hotels, with most things coming through Ghana travelling on the road by him, he was well placed to get customers, and indeed he did. Ever Young was visited by civil servants and dignitaries, performance artists and newly-weds. During this period, Barnor captured intimate moments of luminaries such as Kwame Nkrumah as he pushed for pan-African unity, and commonwealth boxing champion Roy Ankrah.
He told us how he came up with the name for the studio. When he was planning on opening it he recalled a comprehensive exercise from his school days – a story of a daughter of a norseman who lived in a valley called Ever Young, she grew apples there that made warriors fresh and young, her apples never ran out and the basket stayed full with the help of a magical hand.
Ever Young is also the name given to the exhibition. A well suited name as his street and studio photography captured the fresh faced youth of 1960s black Britain, adding glamour and vitality as they chew gum in convertible cars, or feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square. For his Every Young studio shots there is a sense of capturing people in a moment of time, capturing them at their best, at that time in their lives that they or their loved ones want to remember for ever. There is also a hopefulness in their faces, perhaps for the future of the new Ghana.
Barnor himself embodies the ever young spirit. At 84 he stood for the best part of an hour enthusiastically talking to the group, and then meeting everyone and taking questions for another hour afterwards. His warmth, patience, and humour made him very endearing, but most of all his down to earth attitude and humility about the significance of his work and career made me want to talk to him all day.
He came to London to study photography and work in the 1960s before returning home to once again run Ever Young, open the first colour photo lab, and work for the government. In the 1990s he returned to England where he stills lives today as a retired photographer.
It was in 2008 that Autograph ABP, a charity that works internationally in photography, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights with a view to advocating the inclusion of historically marginalised photographic practices, started the process of archiving Barnor’s work. The exhibition emerged as a direct result of this archival research. For two years the Autograph team sorted through Tesco bags and Tupperware boxes filled with negatives and recording Barnor’s memories of the people captured in them so it could become part of their archive and the historical importance of his work recognised by other institutions and audiences.
For the exhibition new prints made from Barnor’s original, digitally preserved negatives, as well as vintage photographs from the late 1940s to early 1970s were presented. There was also a display of original ephemera, including magazine clippings, record covers, personal photographs and letters, which gives a further insight into mid-twentieth century life.
Autograph ABP describe his work as documenting “societies in transition: Ghana moving towards its independence, and London becoming a multicultural metropolis during the ‘swinging 60s’”. I did enjoy the up-beat nature of the photographs, the freedom and pride of the sitters, and in his playfulness with colour. It is a fantastic and interesting exhibition which is running until 31 August 2013.
What I’ve taken away from meeting James is that he never let an opportunity pass him by. He tried everything and took up most every offer given to him, from apprenticeships, to college places, to jobs. He worked hard and let his reputation and talent talk for him, but he did not take them for granted. Even now he’s working hard, helping Autograph archive his work, and being actively involving in audience engagement when the work his exhibited. Perhaps it’s the work ethics of an older generation, or the lack of privileges afforded to the black community when he was forging his career, that made him such a grafter, but it is a lesson to us all.
P.S. A much better review than mine can be found on DIG Yorkshire.