James Barnor: Ghanaian Modernist

Opening 18 May – 31 October 2021

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery | Queens Rd, Bristol BS8 1RL

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James Barnor was Ghana’s first international press photographer working from his studio Ever Young at the time of independence (1957) and selling his pictures to the Daily Graphic and Drum magazines. He came to Britain in 1959, photographing London and returning to Accra where he established X23, the city’s first colour photography studio. Ghanaian Photographer showcases Barnor’s Black modernism, a fusion of pan- African futurism and 1970s style.

Print in progress, Studio X23. Accra, c. 1972 © James Barnor
Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

A new retrospective exhibition by photographer James Barnor draws on previously unpublished work to demonstrate his modernism and inherent skill as a colourist. 

James Barnor (b.1929) was Ghana’s first international press photographer. He came from a family of photographers and established his own studio in Accra, Ever Young in 1950. He worked from this studio at the time of Ghana’s independence whilst also selling his pictures to the Daily Graphic and Drum magazines. He came to Britain in 1959, and whilst working in a factory, he took photography evening classes at the London College of Printmaking and lessons with the Colour Processing Laboratory in Kent. He went on to study at Medway College of Arts, eventually returning to Accra in 1969, where he established X23, the city’s first colour photography studio. He returned to London in the 1990s.

In 2009 the 80 year-old photographer revealed his archive to two London curators. His archive is a remarkable document of post-war modernity spanning photographs from the time of Ghana’s independence, scenes of multicultural London, and later images recording a strong postcolonial identity in Ghana. The metaphor of the road in the book’s title, suggests the continuity between the past and the present, tradition and progress, and the links between generations and peoples of different contents present in Barnor’s work.

Accra, 1971. A shop assistant at the Sick-Hagemeyer store © James Barnor  
Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

The earliest photographs in the book and exhibition include lively street scenes taken in Accra after Barnor had been encouraged by Jim Bailey, editor of Drum, to record Ghanaian Independence. These are contrasted with his composed studio portraits taken at Ever Young, showing his photographic range from the start of his career. An image of Barnor himself captured working in the Agfa-Gevaert in Mortsel, Belgium, 1969 and an image of a print in progress, made at Studio X23, Accra, c. 1972, offers insights to his working practice. Once in London, both Barnor’s commissioned magazine work and his informal photographs of friendships recorded the diversification of Britain. Later works include an alternative image to his well-known vivid portrait of an assistant at Sick-Hagemeyer department store posing with coloured canisters, and a photograph of a model posing for the Agip F1 calendar in a wax-print dress, signalling her postcolonial identity.