Independent Writer, Researcher & Curator 
James Barnor:
Accra/London – A Retrospective

Serpentine Galleries, London
19 May - 24 October 2021

Curatorial Assistant, (Exhibition) & Editorial Assistant (Catalogue)

Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Chief Curator
Awa Konaté, Assistant Curator
Mike Gaughan, Gallery Manager
Joel Bunn, Installation & Production Manager
The Serpentine presented a large-scale UK survey of British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, whose career spans six decades, two continents and numerous photographic genres by way of his work with studio portraiture, photojournalism, editorial commissions and wider social commentary.

Barnor’s images are that of flux and transition. Moving frequently between societies working through post-war and pre/post-colonial contexts, he documented Ghana’s rise to independence and the experiences of a vivid and burgeoning diaspora in London during the Swinging Sixties. Barnor’s career is also one of firsts: widely recognised as Ghana’s first photojournalist, he also established the first colour laboratory in the country.

Barnor was born into a family of photographers, learning his trade via an apprenticeship with his cousin J. P. Dodoo. His early work resisted the rigid formalities often associated with studio portraiture, becoming progressively more candid as he ventured out into the world around him. His adoption of smaller handheld cameras evidenced the increasing democratisation of photography taking place across the continent and indeed the world over, and ultimately led to an invitation to work for the Daily Graphic.

Barnor was the first photojournalist to collaborate with the Daily Graphic, uniquely directing his own stories along with the documentation of other news and sporting events. Whilst photography was not new to Ghana, the arrival of the Daily Graphic in 1950 was the first time its population saw the daily events of their nation depicted visually.

Barnor’s continuing practice grew organically, without professional lighting he staged portraits outside in the sub-Saharan sun, developing and printing from a small makeshift darkroom in his aunt’s home. His move to a former bar in the Jamestown district of Accra in 1953 marked the formal opening of his inaugural photographic studio Ever Young.

Speaking of the studio, Barnor said “I never chose many subjects, they just came.” The vibrancy of Ever Young is hard to summarise briefly; a space for people from all walks of life, for friends, newlyweds, musicians, activists and politicians, Barnor immortalised a generation craving modernity and those shaping new identities during the struggle towards independence. Visitors would be greeted by music and song, with the Highlife genre peaking in popularity in Ghana during the 50’s. A melding of African, African American and European musical aesthetics, artists such as provided the soundtrack to Barnor’s photographic career.

Likened by Barnor to a community centre, his studio was a veritable hive of activity wrapped up in the cultural zeitgeist of excitement and promise.

Barnor also worked for Drum magazine. Founded in South Africa in 1951, Drum quickly underwent considerable transformation under the sole proprietorship of Jim Bailey. A hugely influential and anti-apartheid platform, it was a symbol of Black urban life and politics, becoming the most widely read publication in Africa at the time. Bailey and Barnor became close friends and perhaps most notably, working under assignment in the UK, Barnor worked to place Black British models on the covers of the publication back in Africa. Bailey’s unique brand of conviviality and informality pulsed through the Drum community with parties sometimes impromptu, but always legendary. One gathering was organised by Barnor at his studio, with another on the beach where he recounts “people were swimming under the moon.”

Three years after Ghana gained its independence, Barnor was awarded with a grant to fund study overseas in the UK. During his decade in London he continued to work freelance for Drum, and honed his skills by attending evening courses at the London College of Printing, before enrolling at Medway College of Art in Rochester where he was introduced to colour photography.

One of the few African studio photographers to leave the continent prior to the 1960s for Europe to practice and to study, Barnor was also at the forefront of major photographic innovation. A modest yet irrepressible desire to impart and pool knowledge saw him return in 1969 to Ghana with his family, to establish the first colour processing laboratory in the country the following year.

There he stayed for the next 20 years, establishing Studio X23 as an independent photographer and for a handful of State agencies in Accra.

Barnor’s exhibition follows a recent number of retrospectives at the Serpentine celebrating the work of living artists only now finding wider international acclaim later in their careers.

Born in 1929 in Accra, Ghana. Barnor moved to the UK in 1959. He returned to Ghana ten years later, before settling in London in 1994 where he has resided ever since. Now retired, Barnor devotes most of his time to the ongoing digitisation and exhibition of his substantial archive.