A new exhibition celebrates James Barnor’s pioneering photography

The Bristol show delves into the archives of James Barnor, a photographer of many firsts who captured independence-era Ghana and multicultural London

A new exhibition held as part of the inaugural Bristol Photo Festival is presenting over 40 images by press photographer, studio portraitist and everyday documentarian James Barnor.

James Barnor: Ghanaian Modernist features photographs spanning his decades-long career, including images made in the early 1950s when he opened his photography studio, Ever Young, in Accra, his camera at the ready as Ghana entered an age of independence from British colonial rule. Through a combination of formal studio portraits and vibrant street scenes, Barnor’s archive of work from this time gives a holistic insight into a historic era.

Ever Young studio, Accra, c. 1954. All images © James Barnor, courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
Nigerian Superman, Old Polo Ground, Mantse Agbona Park, Accra, c. 1958

Barnor later moved to London where he documented daily life, 1960s style and a new era of multiculturalism in the capital as diasporic communities grew. As Ghana’s first international press photographer, he worked on various magazine assignments including photographing models and musicians for South African title Drum.

During his time in England, he worked in a factory alongside taking photography evening classes and lessons in colour processing. Upon returning to Accra in 1969, he set up X23, the first colour photography studio and processing lab in the country.

James Barnor at the studio Agfa-Gevaert in Mortsel, Belgium, 1969
Print in progress, Studio X23, Accra, c. 1972

The photographer returned to London in the mid-1990s where he has remained since, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he would have his first exhibition, held at the Black Cultural Archives in London. Several years later, a meeting with two curators and further exhibitions marked the beginning of wider interest in his life’s work.

Barnor has enjoyed a long career yet it’s only now, on the cusp of his 92nd birthday, that his photographic legacy is coming into its own. Alongside the Bristol Photo Festival exhibition, an accompanying book, The Roadmaker, is being co-published by RRB Photobooks and Maison CF, and a major survey of his work arrives at the Serpentine Gallery in London, opening today. Of course, with an archive of more than 40,000 photographs, it’s only a fraction of the picture.

Friends at Mr & Mrs Sackey’s wedding, London, c. 1966
Model playing drums: Constance Mulondo, Drum cover, at London University Weekend with the band The Millionaires, London, 1967
Members of the Tunbridge Wells Overseas Club, Kent, c. 1969
Accra, 1971
Kids dressed in identical suits, Accra, 1970s

James Barnor: Ghanaian Modernist runs at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery until 31 October; bristolphotofestival.org

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes