South African writer, Athol Fugard in his compelling play, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, uses a photography studio as an operating room for a vivid and explicit analysis of the politics of identity and race in apartheid South Africa, in a rare dramatic recognition of the centrality of the photographer as witness to contemporary African society.
The photographer’s trained eye for detail, sublime arrangement and dexterity to properly compose and preserve a fleeting moment is often overlooked. In contemporary Africa, the need to use images in such constructive ways is very important especially to erase the misrepresentation of Africans in western media. Very few men and women behind lenses have been able to able to carry the beauty of our Africanness as legendary Ghanaian photographer James Barnor has done throughout his career.
Barnor’s journey from his studio space in Jamestown, a suburb of Accra to the walls of some of the most prestigious galleries in the world has been a long and painstaking one. He began his craft in a family of photographers and was fortunate to grow up in a transitional period in the history of Ghana. His exposure to the shift from colonialism to a free and independent state allowed him to observe and capture the changing colours of his people as they cozied up to this newfound freedom they bled for.
His first studio, Ever Young was located close to Ghana’s first hotel, the now demolished Sea View Hotel. It was in this place that James Barnor truly came into his own as a photographer after year of apprenticeship. Most of the pictures taken there, in glorious and elegant black and white, glamourised everyday Ghanaian life. However, each has a distinct character of warmth splashed with the fragility of free expression. The studio evolved into a crucial point for all wishing to preserve their selves in film and some of his clients included Kwame Nkrumah, Mohammed Ali, Adjetey Sowah and Marie Hallowi. Barnor also travelled Africa and the world extensively as a photographer for South African magazine, DRUM. His time with this publication allowed him to produce some of his most iconic works on the cover of this very popular magazine amongst Africans at home and in the diaspora in the 1950s and 1960s. His cover portraits shot in London are extremely popular online today as they carry with them Barnor’s signature precision in composing an image in such a way that it draws a viewer in from every angle with ravishing interest.
A proper catalogue of this magnificent photographer’s work exists in his photo book, Ever Young which is a collaborative effort with London based arts organisation Autograph ABP following Barnor’s first major solo exhibition at Harvard. With continued interest in James Barnor’s work, London’s October Gallery is hosting a joint exhibition of his work alongside Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni. To mark the exhibition, Hakeem Adam on behalf of What’s On Africa decided to ask James Barnor a few questions concerning his work and legacy.
WOA: Is there any one particular photograph or photo project that you think you should be remembered for?
James Barnor: It’s difficult to choose over a 40 year period…… perhaps I would say the London series of the 1960s. In particular, the portrait of Mike Eghan taken in Piccadilly Circus, created a spike of recognition. Tate Britain used the image on the front cover of “Another London”, and the V&A have an edition of this work in their collection. It was a very iconic era. Also at the Tropenmuseum, when my portrait of Eva, (originally taken in 1960), was printed for their 70th year publicity campaign, it was seen everywhere – on trams, outside the museum and in magazines. It’s a very poignant photograph, as the model is also my niece.
WOA: It is often said that motivation and focus are key to maintaining success. How did you manage to stay motivated and focus on developing your art throughout your career?
James Barnor: I was fortunate to have a top class school teacher, who had trained as artist. He was incredibly supportive of me and he suggested that I go to the United Kingdom. In 1970, I returned to Ghana where I introduced Colour Processing for the first time. He later found me, and once more encouraged my return to London. I think showing my teacher that I was able to achieve the creativity that he wanted to see, became my ultimate motivation.
WOA: Are there any contemporary Ghanaian photographers whose work you admire or follow?
James Barnor: This is very tricky question to answer with a just few names! There many admirable Ghanaian photographers that I would like to converse with. I think we are living in a time where there are no limits to the creative progression of African photographers. They’re going to go sky high!
WOA: As you prepare for your latest exhibition with Daniele Tamagni, are you surprised that there is still interest in your work after all these years?
James Barnor: No, I’m not that surprised. I was fortunate to have my first retrospective at the Harvard University in America and I was the first to use photography in a newspaper in Ghana, so being one of their first photojournalists is something that I’m often asked about. It’s wonderful to work with Daniele, as it highlights the similarities and the contrasts between our photography – he has an eye for fashion, it’s from another period. I think with one or two more exhibitions, my work will become more known. I still feel that I have many years of work yet to show and that body of work can create different exhibitions depending on the interest, topic or the culture and people of the period.
WOA: Do you still spend time with your camera? Will there be any previous unseen work at this exhibition?
James Barnor: Yes, but now I mainly use my Ipad to take photos and I find that I like it! There will be previously unseen works on view at this new exhibition – so you’ll have to come and see them.
WOA: Do you suppose that there is a particular way a photographer should develop? Does nature reward you with skill after a certain number of tries or must one consciously add and subtract different aspects of his craft to be the photographer you want to be?
James Barnor: I was never satisfied with my work – you have to keep exploring and developing because as soon as you stop moving, you become frozen, immobilized. When this happens, you need to look up to those that you admire, maybe even copy their work and do everything you can to keep developing your art. The proprietor of Drum Magazine ,…Jim Bailey once said to me, go and visit museums and art galleries, be influenced, take notes. I wish I had heeded him more! Education is the key – you need education to learn how to use your medium. See lots – learn to train your eye!
Timestamp: 13th September 2016