Studio, street and style: the photography of James Barnor

Produced as part of Africa Fashion

With a practice spanning six decades and two continents, ranging from street to studio and fashion to documentary, Ghanaian photographer James Barnor (b. 1929) is now recognised as a pioneering figure within the history of photography.

Moving between Accra and London throughout his life, James Barnor's photographic portraits visually map societies in transition: Ghana winning independence from Britain, and London embracing the freedoms of the swinging sixties.

Born in Accra, Ghana in 1929, Barnor was given his first camera (a Kodak Baby Brownie) at age 17, whilst teaching basket-weaving at a missionary school. Inspired by this new device, he forewent plans to become police officer and started an apprenticeship at his cousin's photography studio. Here began his exceptional career and creative journey.

Black and white photo of woman in police uniform saluting
Selina Opong, Policewoman #10, gelatin silver print, by James Barnor, 1954, printed 2011, Accra, Ghana. Museum no. E.106-2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1949, Barnor opened Ever Young studio in the Jamestown district of Accra. His black and white studio portraits taken in the early 1950s capture a nation in flux, on its way towards modernity and independence. In front of painted backdrops and parted curtains, Barnor's clients were invited to memorialise their burgeoning and established personal identities – with the promise of looking 'ever young' thanks to Barnor's renowned photographic retouching skills. The photograph titled Selina Opong, Policewoman #10 illustrates the self-confidence, pride and optimism of a young woman newly entering an urban profession. Through their direct connection with the camera and sophisticated dress, the mother and child depicted in the familiar family-style portrait, Everything in My Hand I Bring (referencing the phrase printed on the mother's kaba and wrapper ensemble) portray a humble sense of self-assuredness.

Black and white photo of a seated woman with a child cuddling in ot her
Everything in My Hand I Bring, gelatin silver print, by James Barnor, about 1953, printed 2011, Accra, Ghana. Museum no. E.105-2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Barnor also worked as a photojournalist in Accra and was the first staff photographer of the Daily Graphic newspaper. While employed there, he photographed high profile figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, the nation's first leader following independence in 1957; Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent; and Vice-President Richard Nixon, among many others.

Black and white photo of the head and shoulders of a woman with a 60s hairdo
Eva, London, gelatin silver print, by James Barnor, about 1960, printed 2011, London, England. Museum no. E.104-2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1959 Barnor relocated to the UK, where he studied photography at Medway College of Art in Kent. Meanwhile, Barnor contributed numerous documentary and fashion photographs to the weekly magazine DRUM. Based in Johannesburg, with London offices on Fleet Street, DRUM was Africa's first black lifestyle magazine and an influential anti-apartheid publication. Barnor's photographs of DRUM models like Eva gave a new face to modern glamour, and contributed to the imagination of a cosmopolitan urban society for DRUM's transnational readership. Through his work for the magazine, Barnor helped redefine the standard for the sensitive portrayal of Black beauty, elegance and style.

Black and white photo of a man standing with his arms outstretched on some steps in front of a coca-cola sign and fountain
Mike Eghan, Piccadilly Circus, gelatin silver print, by James Barnor, 1967, printed 2011, London, England. Museum no. E.103-2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Barnor's dynamic vision of London is further reflected through his picture of the BBC's first Black broadcaster, and fellow Ghanaian, Mike Eghan. Photographed amidst a cacophony of neon signs on the steps of the landmark Piccadilly Circus fountain, this picture cements the emergence of a Black cultural presence in Britain. Literally opening his arms, Eghan appears to confidently embrace the energy of this period in London's history as an emerging multicultural city.

After a decade in the UK, Barnor moved back to Ghana in 1970 to help set up the country's first colour-processing laboratory for the company Sick-Hagemeyer, a subsidiary of Agfa-Gevaert. A defining moment in Ghanaian history, Barnor brought colour photography to a broader market than ever before, using the skills he developed during his schooling in the UK.

Colour photograph of a woman in turquoise dress with colourful large bottles and Agfa-Gevaert flags in background
Sick-Hagemeyer shop assistant with bottles, archival C-type print, by James Barnor, 1971, printed 2021, Accra, Ghana. Museum no. PH.387-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Taken outside the Agfa-Gevaert lab, Sick-Hagemeyer shop assistant with bottles, taken as a colour guide, has become emblematic of Barnor's pioneering role as a colour practitioner. With vivid red Agfa banners flying behind her, a fashionably dressed shop assistant poses with multicoloured bottles, demonstrating the chromatic possibilities of the newly accessible photographic processes. However, this photograph was never intended to become the icon that it is. Tactically posed with the colourful bottles, Barnor initially conceived of this photograph as a test print to ensure the photographic processing machines were properly calibrating film colours. This photograph was intended to be used as a benchmark for other colour photographs made using the machines. Yet, the striking array of colour and chic 1970s style have made it a colourful symbol of Barnor's groundbreaking work.

Two woman dressed in long red/orange multi-coloured outfits next to a red car
Two friends dressed for a church celebration with James' car, archival C-type print, by James Barnor, about 1972, printed 2021, Accra, Ghana. Museum no. PH.389-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the photograph, Two friends dressed for a church celebration with James's car, two women wearing vivid kente cloth lean against James's red 'Studio X23' car. "Colour really changed people's ideas about photography", says Barnor, "Kente is Ghanaian woven fabric with many different colours, and people wanted their photographs taken after church or in town wearing this cloth, so the news [that colour photography was now accessible in Ghana] spread quickly". Impeccably styled from head to toe, these women fashioned their kente cloth with a 1970s flare make a powerful post-independence statement of pride in their custom.

Colour photo of woman from waist up wearing yellow and green dress
Miss Sophia Salomon, archival C-type print, by James Barnor, about 1972, printed 2021, Kokomlemle, Accra, Ghana. Museum no. PH.388-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Equally glamorous, Barnor's close-up of Miss Sophia Salomon harkens to some of his editorial work for DRUM and demonstrates the captivating use of colour in relation to clothing. Salomon's shimmering green and yellow dress leaps off the page and is complimented by the sporadic green shapes dotting the photograph. Caused by deterioration on the original negative from which this photograph was made, the green-coloured shapes aesthetically remind us of the materiality of photography and brilliantly correspond with the dress's green design.

Barnor returned to London in the 1990s and still resides here to this day. He photographed during some of the 20th century's most significant periods of cultural and political change in both Ghana and Britain, and although he only gained recognition for his defining contributions to global photography in the later part of his life, his legacy will exist in perpetuity.

This selection of photographs by James Barnor exists alongside the V&A's growing collection of works by other African photographers including Seydou Keita, Hamidou Maiga and Sanlé Sory.

Background image: Two friends dressed for a church celebration with James' car, gelatin silver print, archival C-type print, by James Barnor, about 1972, printed 2021, Accra, Ghana. Museum no. PH.389-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London