Despite working as a photographer for over six decades, James Barnor’s relatively recent recognition has come at a demand; “It’s only in the last 10 years… If it was before when I was younger I could have done more” James Barnor shared with me as the lights started to dim in a final call for guests to exit the the private view where he and Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni collaborated for their exhibition at October Gallery in September.
Despite a family connection with the 87-year-old photographer, my first opportunity to meet James Barnor only came in 2015, by chance. We first met at Daniele Tamagni’s birthday dinner in London, through soon as I mentioned I was Ghanaian – and a Ga to be precise, we immediately connected on a personal level! I was educated about my ancestral family house in Accra, the Lutterodt House, which I leant was purpose-built to contain a photography studio by having a peep hole through the roof of the building. In a recent visit to Uncle James’ home, I was given a private tour through his extensive collection of photographs, each one loaded with a story from half a century years ago. And Uncle James (as I refer him as), is quite a story-teller, both through photography and narrative of words. His age doesn’t seem to have slowed down his ability to retrace events of his past, which makes his stories all the move fascinating considering his lifetime spans some of the most historic periods of contemporary history. I also heard fond recollections about my grandfather whom I’d never met, a prominent doctor and business man in Accra during his time. What made the visit even more memorable was that Uncle James spoke in his local Ghanaian language “Ga”, and I couldn’t help but be thankful that I grew up to speak and understanding Ga in my household, despite being born and bred in London. Somethings are better expressed in the mother tongue it would seem.
Born in 1929 in Ghana, then the Gold Coast, James Barnor has left mark on the history of photography. From the establishment of his Ever Young photo studio in Jamestown Accra in the 1950s, to international assignments for the influential South African magazine Drum developing his own brand of street reportage and documentary photography. His ability to capture the transition of British colonialism in the Gold Coast through its independence into becoming Ghana, and documentation of London’s Swinging Sixties highlighting a turning point into its multicultural metropolis.
James Barnor’s early works document Ghana as it headed towards independence and came to terms with modernity through new inventions, music and fashion. By the early 1970’s, Barnor opened the first colour processing studio in the country. During this period, he was the first person to shoot outdoors and process images in full colour.
I was given an opportunity of a life time to host James Barnor at University of the Arts London (UAL) during Diversity Matters Awareness Week 2016, for the event “Personal Growth Through From Cultural Experiences Through Travel”. Standing tall in front of a full lecture room, James Barnors’ recollection of his journey documenting transcending moments both in the UK and Ghana, from Black and White to colour photography, left the audience captivated.
James Barnor’s recognition arrived in 2007 when curator Nana Oforiatta-Ayim took an interest in his work and helped organise his first exhibition as well as suggested a book. Recognition through awards come in 2011 when he was honoured with a GUBA (Ghana UK-Based Achievement) special “Lifetime Achievement” award. Most recently, in October 2016 his native country Ghana followed suit in recognising this outstanding contribution to the development of Ghana at the ‘National Honours and Awards Ceremony’ conferred and attended by His Excellency President John Dramani Mahama.
James Barnors story serves as inspiration that it’s never to late to be appreciated, and you’re certainly never too old to be awarded for your well deserved success. As they say, good things come to those who wait, and Sir James Barnor’s wait for recognition has come at once, from the photography world, and his country.
His book “Ever Young” commentary on selected photos, presents an overview of Barnor’s photography from the late 1940s to his pioneering work in colour of the 1970s.
You can follow James Barnor on Instagram @JamesBarnor
Written by Kai Lutterodt
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