Celebrating the Legacy of James Barnor: A Pioneering Ghanaian Photographer

James Barnor ©Dan Kirmatzis 2022 @dankirmatzis

James Barnor, born in 1929 in Accra, Ghana, is a distinguished photographer whose career spans over six decades, capturing the essence of life in Ghana and the United Kingdom. A studio portraitist, photojournalist, and chronicler of Black lifestyle, his journey began in the bustling streets of Accra, where his keen eye for detail and passion for storytelling through photography quickly set him apart. Barnor’s early life in colonial Ghana influenced his perspective, allowing him to document the transformative years of Ghana’s journey to independence.

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Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant, Accra, c. 1971 © James Barnor

Barnor’s professional journey took off when he opened his first studio, Ever Young, in Accra in 1953. This studio became a hub for capturing the aspirations and dreams of a generation poised for change. Barnor’s portraits from this period reflect a society on the brink of independence, with a blend of traditional and modern influences. His work at Ever Young Studio was not just about photography; it was about capturing the spirit of the times and the pride of a nation on the cusp of newfound freedom.

Independance Celebrations Duchess of Kent Kwame NKrumah Accra March 1957© James Barnor courtesy Galerie Clementine de la Feronniere scaled 1
Kwame Nkrumah greeting the Duchess of Kent during the independence celebrations, Accra Stadium, March 1957 © James Barnor

In the late 1950s, Barnor made a significant move to London, signaling a new chapter in his illustrious career. There, he immersed himself in photography studies at Medway College of Art, broadening his artistic repertoire while maintaining a busy schedule working on commissions for various London-based publications. He left his mark on influential platforms such as Drum magazine as a freelance photographer. His work during this period was groundbreaking, capturing the vibrant essence of the African diaspora and the dynamic spirit of 1960s London. Barnor’s photographs from this era are now iconic, documenting fashion, music, and everyday life, offering a compelling glimpse into the multicultural fabric of post-war Britain. In the 1960s, Barnor returned to Ghana as a representative for Agfa-Gevaert, pioneering color photographic processing and contributing to the advancement of photography in his homeland.

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Muhammed Ali training for the fight against Brian London Courtesy Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière © James Barnor

Post-independence, James Barnor’s work continued to evolve, reflecting the changing landscapes of both Ghana and the UK. His exhibitions have garnered international acclaim, showcasing his talent for chronicling dynamic shifts in culture, fashion, and society. From the vibrant streets of Accra to the prestigious galleries of London, Barnor’s photographs serve as a captivating visual narrative of a significant historical period.

His influence extends globally, with notable exhibitions such as the monumental touring showcase “Ever Young” in collaboration with Autograph ABP, featuring newly printed works from digitally preserved negatives alongside vintage photographs spanning from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. In 2016, October Gallery showcased his work alongside Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni. Recognition for his remarkable contributions came in 2016 when President John Mahama awarded him the Order of the Volta at the National Honours and Awards Ceremony. Subsequently, a retrospective of Barnor’s work opened at the prestigious Nubuke Foundation in Accra in 2019, followed by an Honorary Fellowship from The Royal Photographic Society in 2020.

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© James Barnor

The momentum continued with a major touring retrospective opening at The Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2021, later traveling to MASI Lugano, Switzerland, and slated for display at the Detroit Institute of Art, MI, USA in 2023. In 2022, the LUMA Foundation in Arles presented Barnor’s first retrospective in France as part of Les Rencontres d’Arles’ annual Summer Photography Festival. Through these accolades and exhibitions, Barnor’s legacy as a cultural icon and pioneer in photography is firmly established, inspiring future generations to view the world through a lens of curiosity and empathy.

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