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There are moments in life you want to look back on and hold on to because you will never relive them, but they will always stay with you. The day I saw this retrospective is one of such. It was the day I met not one, but two legends of photography. Not only did I met James Barnor himself but Charlie Phillips who will be getting a retrospective in Birmingham NEC later this year in September.
We saw the legends on whose shoulders we stand on and we were all the more richer for it.
That Barnor, at the ripe old age of 92, is only now getting the acknowledgement that should have been due to him decades ago, is indicative of an industry forgetting the entirety of its history. You see, I have made a concerted effort to learn more about African photographers who are some of the pioneers of the art itself. It goes further than Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, both giants as well who also got their dues too late in life; post mortem, but it is a travesty that Barnor in his twilight is only now just getting his flowers.
This retrospective is not even the tip of the iceberg of Barnor’s mastery yet the images capture the strength of his eye and raw talent. A seamless fluidity between worlds, capturing the mundane to the artistic with such distinction. He photographed legends alongside every day people with the same exercise in emotion, in tenderness and importance. To say Barnor is an important photographer is merely stating the obvious, but he is also a guardian of history. Our very relevant and important history. In the early 50s Barnor established his famous Ever Young studio in Accra, just before Ghana’s independence from colonial rule. He showcased the spirit of a nation stepping into her true identity, the transition and life afterwards, at home and abroad. In 1959 he arrived in London, to study and continuing assignments for South African magazine Drum. He returned to Ghana in the early 70s to pioneer the first colour processing lab.
He returned to London in 1994.
There is an urgent energy to his work; whether he was picturing guests at a wedding in Accra or models on the streets of Kilburn in North West London. The ability to relay subtle elements in daily life, editorials, communicate pure joy and emotion… there is something about his works that remain timeless, a certain ease, the mood, the moment. A none intrusive yet keen observer. The softness, irrespective of the subject, is beguiling to the point of a love story between the subject and the lens, even when it is a black and white picture in profile of a priest that conveys a quietness that is both loud in the manipulation of light and and imaginative on his play with shadows. People like Barnor are so vital; as a Black man, as an African; documenting our lives within and without the continent. What we are rewarded with, as observers, is history much more than words could ever convey. He takes us with him so we sense it and feel it. It is rare that we see our people documented the way Black photographers in particular, can; capturing the joy, the light, the shades of our skin, traditions. Barnor captured both Kwame Nkrumah and Mohamed Ali in the same way he captured his sister or young Black girls in swimwear. It is the story of our lives, lived in comfort; from the mundane to the celebratory.
He shot with a small, hand-held camera when outside his Ever Young studio and there he captured the world with a freedom as it unfolded, on the cusp of independence, leaders at the forefront of that time, in pertinent moments. Post independence and into the swinging sixties, his work with colour was both revolutionary and a reference point; he captured it with a vividness but with uncompromising softness that made mastery of light in any setting.
A convention defying artist before that was a thing, with a signature as broad as it was specific. He captured worlds, traversing pre-defined spaces, especially for a Black photographer. His genius was his ability to be both adaptable yet stand out. This exhibition showcases a master of the craft who remains as ever relevant today as he was many decades ago, and will be for decades to come. There is a restlessness to his work that tells of an unceasing curiosity to step into spaces that were never held for him, only for him to elevate the terrain. Yet his signature remains true; encapsulating a world constantly changing by a photographer able to change along and sometimes ahead of his time.