The Serpentine is exhibiting the most comprehensive retrospective so far of Ghanain-British photographer James Barnor’s work after the recent digitisation of his 32,000-picture archive. Barnor’s work has developed over six decades, across both Ghana and the United Kingdom. Working closely with Barnor (a current London resident), chief curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas and colleagues have crafted a selection of photos from the 1950s to the 1980s, in what Carey-Thomas has described as “every bit a collaboration from start to finish.”
The exhibition proceeds chronologically: the first photos are black and white shots on silver gelatin print. The first shown is a wide shot of Ever Young, the photography and retouching studio founded by Barnor in 1953: shortly followed by a full-length portrait of his first sitter. Slightly blurry, with little in the way of careful composition, few traces of Barnor’s later editorial eye are to be found. The next images that follow represent a radical shift: within a few years of operating the studio, Barnor’s skill had flourished. Collaborative and intimate, this series of studio shots lean more towards the conversational than the observational: the sitters’ character is coaxed out and captured candidly, despite the studio setting.
Continuing along the exhibition path, we are introduced to Barnor’s social photography. The success of Ever Young led to the studio becoming a hub of social activity in Accra: the name - both reference to a Norse myth and his retouching process - reflects the subject of much of his early street photography: Barnor captured the vibrant social life of the youth of Accra, from low-light shots outside their energetic nightclubs to the casual candid portraiture of their beach parties. Barnor’s work at this time was affection through observation: a love letter to the people of Accra through the simple act of capturing them on film.
During this period Barnor also began working with the publications The Daily Graphic and Drum, leading to Barnor’s title as the first Ghanain photojournalist. Continuing through the exhibition, we are shown striking scenes of diplomats, mass crowds, and the initials NLM (National Liberation Movement) painted on a man’s bare shoulder at a political rally. Due to his position as a photojournalist, Barnor had the opportunity to be at the forefront of the Ghanain independence movement, capturing key moments of a country in metamorphosis. The other stretch of the wall reflects the other side to his work with publications: the editorial covers for South African Drum magazine. His covers for Drum magazine - big, bold, and in brilliant colour - present a different image of Ghana.
After a recommendation from his friend, Barnor moved to London in 1959. Here, he continued working with Drum, capturing high-profile cover shots: from Marie Hallowi flocked by pigeons outside Charing Cross to the famous shot of Mike Eghan gliding down the steps of Piccadilly Circus. He combined this work with his ongoing social photography on the streets of London: from occasional scenes such as the morning Covent Garden market to the social lives of the youth. Once focus re-emerges: images from the lives of the Ghanain diaspora. From the rich shots of community life in Accra to the uncompromising celebration of Ghanain immigrants in London, Barnor bridged the gap: connecting people across space and time through an adoration of Ghana. This adoration is found in the finer details of what Barnor captured: women in traditional Ghanain hairstyles and dress; festivities and the crowds they brought; promotions and portraits of contemporary musical artists; even portraits of his own family. The final stretch of the exhibition is lined with a selection of highlights from his later work. It is the perfect culmination of Barnor’s work: invigorating, conversational, and deeply enamoured with the Ghanain soul.