From an early age, James Barnor, the nimble portraitist born in 1929 in Ghana, admired the way wedding photographers and police photographers alike commanded a scene. He apprenticed for a photographer cousin and eventually opened his own studio in Accra. Barnor highlighted “the fragmented experience of modernity and diaspora,” as curator Renée Mussai noted in an introductory text to the 2015 monograph James Barnor: Ever Young. The artist subtly harnessed the collective joy experienced in the wake of Ghana’s independence in 1957, as political consciousness and anticolonial movements swept the continent. In 1959 he moved to London, where he learned color-photography processes and embraced the freewheeling spirit and insouciant style of the 1960s—the graphic-print dresses, stacked platforms, and bouffant hairstyles of Swinging London. Returning to Accra a decade later, Barnor set up Ghana’s first color laboratory, as well as a new studio. He remained on his native terrain for the next twenty-some years, freelancing for agencies, until he returned to the United Kingdom in 1994.
Barnor had his first retrospective at London’s Autograph in 2010; his images were subsequently showcased at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the Rencontres de Bamako in Mali. The photographs in this exhibition, “The Roadmaker,” excerpted the wider-scale exhibition “James Barnor: Accra / London—A Retrospective,” on view at London’s Serpentine Gallery last year, and are set to travel after Paris to the Museo d’Arte della Svizzera italiana in Lugano and to the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the accompanying catalogue, curator Tobia Bezzola notes that Barnor practiced photography “as part of a productive unity in which the methods and decisions of the photographer merge with . . . the communities and people to whom his images are dedicated.” He likens Barnor’s grasp of his subjects’ world to that of other such immersive and intuitive imagemakers as Chris Killip or Boris Mikhailov. Art historian Kobena Mercer echoes the sentiment in Ever Young, remarking that Barnor “conveys a dignified self-possession, reflecting the fact that both photographer and photographed share control over the apparatus of representation.”
One of the first images the visitor encountered here was Printmaking in the Darkroom, Studio X23, Accra, ca. 1983, which shows a photo of a smiling woman hung on a wall, while the very same profile lies in a chemical bath below, finalizing its development. The image crystallizes the photographer’s fine-tuning in an intimate space, and, even as it addresses meta-reproducibility, it articulates the generosity of sharing one’s subjective experience of seeing.
In the second room, a lineup of five portraits served as a distilled representation of covers Barnor did for the South African magazine Drum. One was a 1967 portrait of musician Constance Mulondo sitting behind a drum kit, sticks in hand and eyeing the photographer slyly; the neighboring editorial-style image from 1966 presented actress/model Marie Hallowi casually drooping her wrists over a pool rail below a sign scolding, jumping from the diving boards not allowed, as a bevy of little boys in swimming briefs gawk at her in the background. Another 1967 image showed a smiling model, Erlin Ibreck, sitting on a stool amid the fully visible mechanisms of the studio: a slouching white backdrop, bright artificial lighting flanking both sides of her trim matching outfit and Mary Janes.
Barnor built a portfolio of poignant, uplifting images whose aesthetic valorized the lived-in ease of his subjects. From the vantage point of today, these images have added significance: They provide a meaningful record of the act of fashioning a postcolonial self.