In 1957, after over a century of colonization, Ghana gained independence from Britain. Just 30 years prior, in 1929, photographer James Barnor was born in the country’s capital Accra — then the Gold Coast colony — and over the course of a career that spanned more than six decades would become one of Ghana’s leading and most well-known photographers. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Barnor created a definitive portfolio of street and studio portraiture depicting societies in transition: images of a burgeoning sub-Saharan African nation moving toward independence, and a European capital city becoming a multicultural metropolis.
Ghana in the 1950s was experiencing a radiance of post-colonization as well as its “heyday of Highlife,” a fusion of traditional African rhythms, Latin calypso and jazz influences that would soon spread across Ghana’s borders to West Africa and beyond. Its rising cosmopolitan class in the capital of Accra was breathing energy into a multitude of areas — from fashion to food to art — and was a vivid reflection of the country’s post-independent attitude. Barnor captured all of this energy, playing at once artist, director, photographer and technician, by offering a well-rounded portrait of Ghanian life from many walks of life.
On Oct. 8, Autograph ABP and the gallery Clementine de la Feronniere will release the book “Ever Young” showcasing Barnor’s extensive archive, followed by a corresponding photo exhibition in Paris through Nov. 21.
In 1953, after completing his apprenticeship and running an open-air mobile studio for several years, Barnor opened his own studio called Ever Young, which transformed into one of Accra’s leading photographic studios. Six years later he moved to London in 1959, just in time to witness first-hand the cool Swinging London of the 1960s, and where he would begin to experiment with color photography. It was through this transition that Barnor would become, uniquely perhaps, the only African studio photographer to leave the continent prior to 1960 to study and practice in Europe.
Whether in Ghana or Britain, Barnor documented cultures in transformation, new identities coming into being — the fragmented experience of modernity and diaspora, the shaping of cosmopolitan societies and selves, and the changing representation of blackness, desire and beauty across time and space. His archive constitutes not only a rare document of the black experience in post-war Britain during the Swinging Sixties, but also provides an important frame of reference, overlapping and stitching together questions of the post-colonial in relation to diasporic perspectives in 20th-century photography.