James Barnor: 'I’m finally getting recognition'

The early years: Finding work as a photographer in London was difficult, but 'Drum' was home for James Barnor and its founder, Jim Bailey, was his friend. (James Barnor/ Autograph ABP)

The early years: Finding work as a photographer in London was difficult, but 'Drum' was home for James Barnor and its founder, Jim Bailey, was his friend. (James Barnor/ Autograph ABP)

What unfolded in London? Was it what you expected?

I left Accra in November 1959 and arrived in England on December 1. In those days we’d have to take the ship, which would start from Lagos, then go to Accra, Sierra Leone, Gambia and finally arrive in Liverpool.

When I got to London, I first did evening courses at the London School of Printing. I was working night shift in a factory with a Ghanaian boxer, Attuquaye Clottey, who thought I was mad to leave my studio in Ghana and come to London and struggle like this.
But I wanted to learn.

Then in 1960 I started to work with Dennis Kemp, who worked for Kodak Lecture Service going around to schools and talking about his photography. He said, “Look I can offer you board and lodging but no pay.” I also travelled to Nigeria and Ghana with Kemp in that first year in England and, by the time we returned, the grant for me to study had been approved.

Between 1961 and 1963 I went to the Medway College of Art in Kent. I did not have GCE (general certificate of education) but they allowed me in. My experience helped a bit. We did art, graphic design, liberal studies reading and researching. As soon as I finished my studies they employed me as a technical assistant in the photo department.

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During this time I went to an exhibition of colour photography. At the stand the proprietor of Colour Processing Laboratory was standing there, Kenneth Cobbley. “Where do you come from? Do you know CQ Thompson?” he said. Thompson was the Ghana government’s chief photographer who learnt his photography from Vanderpuije at Deo Gratias Studio. “I said, yes, I know him. I photographed him.” He gave me his card and details and told me to come to Crockham Hill. In those early days the laboratory was run from his house. Later they opened bigger premises in a factory at Edenbridge.

Was it difficult for an African photographer in England in the 1960s?

You couldn’t get work in the 1960s as a black photographer. It would not happen that a black photographer would instruct white sitters, etc. If you work for a studio in London, you would work behind the scenes in the dark room doing odd jobs.

Drum though, where I did freelance work, was different. They let me photograph the cover girls, Muhammad Ali, Mike Eghan (the BBC presenter). It was my home in London. I was close to Drum, as I was close to The Daily Graphic, both in Ghana and in London.

What was it like when you went back to Ghana in 1969?

Agfa-Gevaert were setting up a colour lab in Accra. People in London told me to apply to Agfa-Gevaert in Germany directly. They wanted managerial experience. Then I remembered I ran my own studio, Ever Young, my own business, and told them about that.

So, I was technical adviser, also involved in sales at Sick-Hagemeyer, a subsidiary of Agfa-Gevaert. I was excited, ready to work. I wanted to organise workshops to demonstrate the effects of time and temperature, so that clients could have the best results from the products. When I started with Agfa-Gevaert in Accra, I requested that Julius Aikins, my former mentor, be employed because he was already very advanced in colour photography.

My appointment was done direct from Germany. Van der Stool, the managing director in Ghana, didn’t have a choice in the matter. He was trying to make it difficult for me. It was a master-boy kind of relationship.

Did your second studio, Studio X23, and Ever Young studio exist at the same time?

Studio X23 and Ever Young were two very different things. I started Ever Young in the early 1950s and it grew slowly over time. It was in Jamestown. We had a sign “Day and Night Photo Service”.

Studio X23 was near the General Post Office of Accra and ran from 1973 to 1992. I was forced to work when I opened Studio X23 in the early 1970s. My cousin, Alfred M Quarcoopome offered me his storeroom to use. There was a verandah, like a corridor. I partitioned it. It was a small, impromptu, makeshift place with no lighting arrangements as such. There was a fixed daylight arrangement, natural light coming in from the door and a window. I didn’t take photos at night.

X was the code for the Jamestown area and X23 was my postbox number, so that’s where I took the name for Studio X23.

You also did advertising work in Accra.

I met a graphic designer, Emmanuel Odartey Lamptey, who had the contacts, who asked me to take photos for advertising commissions. You know, record sleeves, portraits, newspaper, calendars, advertising, etc. So, for example, the musicians would ask him to design something or he would get a commission and I would take the photographs.

After my three-year contract with Agfa-Gevaert was up, the American Embassy in Ghana approached me to work for them. When I saw the equipment and set-up I was attracted straight away. I wanted to learn more about photography, not be a salesman, which is what I was at Agfa-Gevaert.

I worked for the embassy for almost five years, from 1977 to 1982, in the United States Information Service. When Andrew Young came to Ghana, I shadowed him around. He was Jimmy Carter’s man at the United Nations. I was the official photographer for the American mission and, as I was trained in design at the college in Kent, I also did some graphic design work.

Then I worked for Jerry John Rawlings, the Ghanaian president, as government photographer at the Castle in Accra, from 1983, for five years as well. Anyone who came to visit Rawlings, I was there to capture it. When Carter came to the airport I accompanied Rawlings to that meeting.

I had my own darkroom at the Castle. An English woman, Mrs Sackey, was the information officer. I was closer to Rawlings than to her.

What made you decide to go back to London after 24 years in Ghana?

Ghana was hard in 1994. There was no photography work. I came back to London but I could not work as a photographer. I only had a six-month entry and with that you were not permitted to work. I was also 65 so no one would hire me as a professional photographer anymore.

I had to do all kinds of work. I worked as a cleaner at the schools and then at Heathrow airport for many years.

Some photos in your current solo exhibition Colors in Paris feature white subjects. This was unusual for a black photographer at the time.

The one where I am photographed with a white model was an advertising shoot for Agfa-Gevaert in Mortsel, near Antwerp in Belgium. So that was different.

The colour photos taken in Kent was a private thing. I always carried my camera. I lived with my wife in Tunbridge Wells and I drove every day to Edenbridge to work in the colour lab there.

How did you feel when you first saw your photos on gallery and museum walls?

When I saw Drum with my photos on the cover, alongside other magazines at the newsstands, I felt like I was in heaven. At that time there wasn’t always photo credits but I was paid well.

Recently I wrote to one of my friends to say that I’ve come a long way. And I feel I’m finally getting the recognition.

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I never imagined that my photos would be shown here in galleries with the prices that they sell for. Once, the Black Star Agency paid me £75 for a picture of my own baby holding up a beer bottle in each hand. Now the photos are selling for more than two figures at the galleries.

I’m glad that the pictures are doing well. I feel satisfied.

How do you feel about your 90th birthday?

There is Ghanaian band Dromo (meaning grace) coming from Germany. Kotey Niikoi is the bandleader. Back in the late 1970s, Kotey was training with a young group in the backyard of Studio X23. They were called Abaa Hi Gbiko Sounds, meaning “all will be well one day”.

I’m happy. I’ve worked too hard, without the basic education. It’s too late … and also it’s not finished.

I’m excited about my birthday because of the people who will come. Six grandchildren are coming: two from Ghana, two from London, two from Kent. You are coming; you showed my exhibition at the South African National Gallery in 2011. Rachel Pepper from London, who was involved with my show at Acton Arts Festival in 2004, will be there. She started it all, one of those, before the Ghana@50 exhibition curated by Nana Oforiatta-Ayim.

Many others are coming like Nana Adwoa A Ackom-Mensah, a lawyer in Accra who rang me from the ambassador’s house in Paris — I took private tuition under her father when I was in school in the 1940s. Senayt Samuel, who scanned and touched up my negatives at Autograph ABP in London, now living in Switzerland, is coming too.

I’m excited because of all the different people, from all these different countries, making a special effort to come to Paris for my 90th birthday.

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