Groundbreaking photos of Ghanaian society and culture

Groundbreaking photos of Ghanaian society and culture
A new exhibition retraces the influential work of James Barnor, who captured changes in Accra and London as Ghana achieved independence 1957.

Hailing from Accra, James Barnor grew up in a family of photographers. He got his start at age 17 and never looked back, forging a singular archive that helped to shape and define the spirit of Africa and the African Diaspora during the 20th century.

Born in 1929 in Ghana, Barnor opened his famous Ever Young Studio in 1953, just a stones throw from Accra’s esteemed Seaview Hotel. Barnor’s engaging demeanour, graceful charm and inextricable talent drew an impressive array of clients from the start. At the same time, he worked at the Daily Graphic newspaper as the first staff photographer, covering news, politics and entertainment as the nation achieved independence in 1957. Two years later, he traveled to the UK and became a seminal voice working with magazines like Drum and Flamingo.

Barnor stayed abroad in the 1960s, after a military coup toppled Kwame Nkrumah’s government, creating widespread instability. In 1970, he returned to Accra and promptly set to work, founding the nation’s first colour photography lab, opening Studio X23 and resuming his role as the artist of modern life.

Top to bottom: Drum magazine cover model Marie Hallowi, Charing Cross Station, London, 1966 © James Barnor, courtesy Autograph, London. A shop assistant at Sick-Hagemeyer, Accra, 1971 © James Barnor, courtesy Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris.

Now the the groundbreaking photographer receives his proper due with James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective, his first U.S retrospective at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The exhibition brings together 170 works across fashion, portraiture, reportage, editorial and fine art that centre photography as a celebration of connection, kinship and community.

“James has an extraordinary command of his 32,000-strong archive and can confidently tell its contents. His love of history and storytelling has always been vital to his work. For him, the picture is more than art; it encapsulates a story,” says co-curator Nii Quarcoopome, Department Head of Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas, and Curator of African Art.

Accra/London – A Retrospective traces the threads Barnor wove between different worlds to preserve multiple social and cultural histories across a backdrop of radical political change.

“It was an era of transition in Ghana, and he was always there to capture the people along with their stories and the unfolding historical events. He covered the road to independence along with the individuals who were responsible for making history,” says co-curator Nancy Barr, Department Head, Prints, Drawing and Photographs and James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography.

Mrs. Bruce portrayed in her new hairstyle after school, Ever Young Studio, Jamestown, Accra, 1956 © James Barnor, courtesy Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris.

When he returned home in the 1970s, Barnor brought his mastery of colour photography, changing the landscape of art and commerce by revolutionising the possibilities for advertising and editorial photography.

Now, as then, Barnor has been closely involved with the stories he is telling through the work, deeply engaged in sharing the nuance and detail that makes his photographs both art and artefact.

“To James, nothing seems irrelevant or unimportant. His approach was to capture as much of every moment as possible,” says Quarcoopome. “His intuitive reliance on the camera to pick up things that escaped his eye layers his images with meanings. As a result, he captured aspects of Ghanaian society and culture that would have gone unrecorded. His impact is unmistakable.”

James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective is on view through October 15, 2023, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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