James Barnor

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James Barnor (born 6 June 1929) is a pioneering Ghanaian photographer whose career spans six decades, although for most of his career his work was not widely known. In his street and studio photography he represents societies in transition: Ghana moving toward Independence, and London becoming a multicultural metropolis. He has said: "...I was lucky to be alive when things were happening...when Ghana was going to be independent and Ghana becacme independent, and when I came to England the Beatles were around. Things were happening in the 60s, so I call myself Lucky Jim."[1] He is credited with introducing colour processing to Ghana.[2][3]

Appreciation of octogenarian Barnor's work as a studio portraitist, photojournalist and Black lifestyle photographer[4] has been heightened since 2010 as a result of a series of exhibitions of his work in the UK, the USA, France and South Africa. His photographs have been collated by the London-based charity Autograph ABP during a four-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in 2011 became part of the new Archive and Research Centre for Culturally Diverse Photography.[5]

Early years[edit]

James Barnor was born in Accra, in what was then the Gold Coast, West Africa. Explaining how he came to choose his career he has said: "Photography was in my family. My two uncles were photographers. My cousin was a photographer, and I found out later when I got into it that another cousin was also a photographer."[1]

At the age of 17 Barnor was teaching basket weaving at a missionary school and the headmaster gave him a camera "to play around with––it was a Kodak Brownie 127, made of plastic".[6] In 1947, Barnor started an apprenticeship with his cousin J. P. Dodoo, a well-known portrait photographer,[7] "mostly taking pictures of people because when you take pictures of flowers and places there's nobody to pay for them. I did that for two years but I had always wanted to be a policeman. I applied to be a police photographer and was accepted, but before I could start my training my uncle gave me the camera he used for photography."[6]

Ever Young Studio[edit]

After finishing the apprenticeship set up his own freelance photographic practice in a makeshift street studio in the Jamestown area of the capital, using a backdrop outside his rented room.[1] When his landlord wanted to reclaim the room, from 1953 Barnor began to operate his Ever Young Studio.[8] Its name derives from the subject of an English comprehension extract he had studied as a schoolboy, entitled "Iduna's Grove", about a Norse goddess giving out magic apples to grant eternal youthfulness; it was also an allusion to the expected practice of retouching sitters' faces to perfection - "Long before Photoshop existed you would use a pencil. I would retouch the pictures to make people look younger."[4][9] Located close to the once-famous Seaview Hotel, the studio "soon drew a mixture of clients from families to night revellers and dignitaries".[1] Among those whom Barnor photographed were Ghana's future first president Kwame Nkrumah, pan-Africanist politician J. B. Danquah, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke (last British governor of the Gold Coast), the Duchess of Kent and then American Vice-President Richard Nixon (when he attended Ghana's Independence ceremony in March 1957), as well as boxing champion Roy Ankrah.[10]

Photojournalism with Daily Graphic and Drum[edit]

At the same time as freelancing, Barnor became the first staff photographer employed by the Daily Graphic newspaper[11] when it was established in Ghana in 1950 by Cecil King of the London Daily Mirror Group, as well as Ghana's first full-time newspaper photographer.[1] Barnor also sold photographs to other publications, notably the South African magazine Drum, which covered news, politics and entertainment, and with whom he established an ongoing relationship.

1960s in the UK[edit]

In December 1959 he travelled to England to develop his skills, working at Colour Processing Laboratories Ltd,[7] Edenbridge, Kent, and attending evening and other part-time classes before being awarded a Ghana Cocoa Marketing Board scholarship to study full-time at Medway College of Art in Rochester, Kent. Subsequent to this course, he stayed on in the UK and continued working as a photographer and technician.[8] His images from this period document Africans in Britain, notably his work as a fashion photographer with black models against London backdrops, often for the covers of Drum, then the leading magazine in Africa.[12]


After a decade in England, Barnor went back to Ghana, where he set up the country's first colour processing facilities.[8] For the following 24 years in Ghana he worked as a professional photographer, was the official African representative for Agfa-Gevaert (at the time the leading company for imaging technology), and was also given work by the American embassy and Ghanaian government agencies under the auspices of J. J. Rawlings.[8]

Return to London: 1994–present[edit]

In 1994, Barnor returned to London, where his work latterly began to be discovered by a new wider audience.[13]"At the age of 79, I was recognised," he told his audience at a talk at Chelsea Theatre in 2013.[14] His 85th birthday in June 2014 was marked with a showcase of his work in the London Borough of Hounslow,[15][16] where he lives in sheltered accommodation.[14]


From 24 April to 24 June 2007 the exhibition Mr Barnor’s Independence Diaries took place at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), curated by Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, as part of BCA's Ghana Jubilee Season marking the 50th anniversary of the nation's Independence.[17][18]

Barnor's first US exhibition took place in spring 2010 at the Rudenstine Gallery, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, in association with Autograph ABP.[19]

The first major solo retrospective exhibition of Barnor's photographs, Ever Young: James Barnor, was mounted at Rivington Place in London from September to November 2010, curated by Renée Mussai.[20][21] Documenting life in Ghana from the late 1940s to 1950s, and African life during London's "swinging sixties" (famous faces include Muhammad Ali, who defended his world heavyweight title against Brian London at Earl's Court in 1966) as well as later decades, the exhibition received wide and favourable coverage within the UK media.[1][22][23] As one reviewer noted, "The pictures have become slices of history, documenting race and modernity in the post-colonial world."[24] For art historian Kobena Mercer,

"Barnor captures the mood of a nation on the cusp of self-determination.... Cutting across the divide between periphery and metropolis, Barnor’s images suggest that 'Africa' has never been a static entity, confined to the boundaries of geography, but has always had a diasporic dimension....

The rediscovery of Barnor’s images today reveals how photographs have a diasporic life of their own. By virtue of mechanical reproduction, which undercuts the distinction between the original and the copy, photographs are vulnerable to a process of decontextualisation – making them orphans, thrown into the world without a fixed 'home'. But in the research process of retrieval and reassembly that has unified Barnor’s disparate images into a holistic body of work, we have a kind of homecoming in which previously orphaned images are given a second life."[25]

The exhibition was subsequently shown at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 2011.[26] Barnor's photographs have also had recent (June/July 2012) showings in Ghana,[27][28][29] in Paris, France (Paris Photo 2011,[30] Galerie Baudoin Lebon),[31] and elsewhere and he is in demand to give talks about his work.[32]

Barnor had work included in the show Another London: International Photographers Capture London Life 1930–1980 at Tate Britain in August 2012,[33][34] with his 1967 photograph of BBC World Service reporter "Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus, London" featuring on the cover of the catalogue.[35]

Barnor's Ever Young exhibition, curated by Renée Mussai of Autograph ABP’s Archive and Research Centre,[10] toured to Impressions Gallery,[36] Bradford, exhibited from 5 July to 31 August 2013.[37][38]

Barnor is featured in Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s that opened in 2015, the culmination of a seven-year collaborative project between the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton,[39] supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, showcasing a number of black British photographers and images of black Britain from the 1950s to the 1990s.[40][41][42]

Barnor's work was included alongside that of such iconic photographers as Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy, John French, Norman Parkinson, John Hopkins, John Cowan, Eric Swayne and Philip Townsend in the exhibition "Swinging Sixties London - Photography in the Capital of Cool", which opened in June 2015 at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam.[43]

Recognition and honours[edit]

It has been said of him: "Photographer James Barnor is to decolonizing Ghana (and later to 1960s black Britain) what Oumar Ly is to Senegal or Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita were to Mali."[44]

In 2011, James Barnor was honoured with a GUBA (Ghana UK-Based Achievement)[45] special "Lifetime Achievement" award. On receiving it, he revealed that it was the first award he had ever been given.[46]

His photographs are represented in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate and Government Art Collection in Britain, as well as in numerous international private collections.[36]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Kwaku, "Lucky Jim, still working at 81", New African, April 2011, pp. 80–82.
  2. ^ Aarti wa Njoroge, "In Conversation with James Barnor], in Comparison with Malick Sidibé". Originally in AfricanColours, 8 May 2012. Reprinted in Digital Photo Times
  3. ^ James Barnor biography at Victoria and Albert Museum.
  4. ^ a b Kate Salter, "Colour me beautiful: James Barnor's photographs for Drum magazine", Fashion, Telegraph, 7 December 2010.
  5. ^ "Work of Medway-trained photographer in new archive", BBC Kent, 7 December 2010.
  6. ^ a b "Picture This – Photographer James Barnor Looks Back at 60 Years Behind the Camera", Nowness, 25 September 2010.
  7. ^ a b Angela Cobbinah, "Following Nkrumah", NewsAfrica, 6 January 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d Audrey Quaye, "Upcoming exhibition of James Barnor's Photography at Harvard University's WEB DuBois Institute starting on Thursday, January 28th, 2010", Modern Ghana, 25 January 2010.
  9. ^ Renée Mussai, "James Barnor: Snapshots of Emerging Africa" (caption for 3, "Beatrice With Trademark Figurine, Ever Young Studio, Accra, c. 1955"), The Root.
  10. ^ a b James Barnor: Ever Young, Autograph ABP.
  11. ^ "Ghanaian photographer to exhibit work", Daily Graphic, 28 August 2012.
  12. ^ Amma Sarfo, "Getting To Know Legendary Ghanaian Photographer James Barnor", Global Fusion, 4 April 2011.
  13. ^ Ade Sawyerr, "Preserving the past to inspire the future:everyoungjba.org". The Ade Sawyerr Blog.
  14. ^ a b "Black & White Memories: Colonialism Through the Lens of James Barnor", Creolita, 11 December 2013.
  15. ^ "Photography Exhibition", Studio 700, Hounslow Library.
  16. ^ "James Barnor and the Mayor of Hounslow at his 85th birthday and photographic held at the Library in the Treaty Centre", 21 June 2014.
  17. ^ Nana Oforiatta Ayim, "Icon(ic): Photographer James Barnor", Dust Magazine, 29 March 2012.
  18. ^ Louise Ray, "Black Cultural Archives Launches Exciting Heritage Programme to Commemorate Ghana's Golden Jubilee", Community Archives and Heritage Group, 7 March 2007.
  19. ^ "Ever Young: James Barnor, Street and Studio Photography, Ghana/UK", Hutchins Center, Spring 2010.
  20. ^ "Renée Mussai of Autograph ABP to lecture at Light Work", Light Work, 1 March 2010.
  21. ^ "Photography, Diaspora and James Barnor's Transatlantic Archive: A Missing Chapter", Iziko Museums, September 2011.
  22. ^ "1960s London seen through an immigrant’s eyes", The Observer, 19 September 2010.
  23. ^ Chloe Hayward, "James Barnor", Past Present Future London – Chronicling arts, culture and lifestyle over the last century, 5 October 2010.
  24. ^ "James Barnor: Crossing Continents – The Fashion Photographer and Photojournalist Who Chronicled a Changing World", Nowness.
  25. ^ Kobena Mercer, "People get ready – A new exhibition of James Barnor’s photography provides a route-map of Afro-Modernism", New Humanist, 10 November 2010.
  26. ^ "Ever Young: James Barnor", Iziko Museums, South Africa.
  27. ^ "Photos: James Barnor 'Ever Young'", OkayAfrica, 28 June 2012.
  28. ^ Qirv Ventures Brings GUBA award winning Photographer James Barnor On a Triumphant return, GUBA, 7 June 2012.
  29. ^ "Ghana – A Heritage Ever Young", GHStreets.com.
  30. ^ "Paris Photo 2011: Analogue Nirvana", Lomography, 27 September 2011.
  31. ^ Galerie Baudoin Lebon – Synchronicity.
  32. ^ "Raw Social with photographer James Barnor", Whitworth Adult Programme, 19 July 2012.
  33. ^ David Campany, "On the hoof and shooting from the hip – Another London", Tate, 23 July 2012.
  34. ^ Another London at Tate Britain, One Stop Arts.
  35. ^ Tricia Wombell, "Another London at Tate Britain", Black Book News, 21 August 2012.
  36. ^ a b Exhibitions past: "Ever Young", Impressions Gallery.
  37. ^ Daniel Potts, "James Barnor: Ever Young, Impressions Gallery", Aesthetica.
  38. ^ Shaila Hamid, "James Barnor ‘Ever Young’: Review", NewFocus, 19 July 2013.
  39. ^ Ruth Waters, "Staying Power at the BCA", Brixton Blog, 9 February 2015.
  40. ^ "Black Cultural Archives: Staying Power", The Africa Channel, 2015.
  41. ^ "Staying Power", Victoria and Albert Museum.
  42. ^ Maya Jaggi, "‘Staying Power’ at Victoria and Albert Museum", The Financial Times, 20 February 2015.
  43. ^ "Swinging Sixties London - Photography in the Capital of Cool", Amsterdam Art.
  44. ^ Sean Jacobs, "James Barnor’s Ghana", Africa Is a Country, 26 November 2010.
  45. ^ GUBA awards.
  46. ^ "GUBA 2011 - Legendary photographer James Barnor says thank you" on YouTube.

External links[edit]