A Ghanaian-British photographer who captured the African diaspora in 60s London and created black fashion images that inspired a new generation of artists is to have his work displayed on Piccadilly Circus’s big screens as part of a major retrospective.
In 1961, James Barnor took an iconic image of the BBC Africa Service reporter Mike Eghan on the steps of the Eros fountain in Piccadilly, and now more than 50 years later his own work will be beamed out overlooking the same spot during April.
The retrospective at the Serpentine, originally supposed to open in June 2020, marks a spectacular rise for Barnor, 91, who until an expansive show at Autograph in 2010 was largely unknown in the British photography world.
Barnor, who lives in London, started his career in his home town of Accra, Ghana, as a photojournalist before setting up his Ever Young studio, where he took portraits and staged images. “I always treated my sitters and my customers with the utmost respect,” he said. “I was conscious of what people were wearing and tried to bring the best out of them.”
When he moved to the UK he trained in photography and began shooting images for South Africa’s Drum magazine, which included cover shots of black fashion models.
The artist Liz Johnson Artur says Barnor’s work presented a different take on the black communities that had settled in London in the 50s and 60s, which previously had had been mostly represented in images taken by white, European photographers.
“His pictures were clearly taken by someone who was from the community but also there was a style that I really liked that wasn’t about exposing but rather showing,” she said.
The Serpentine curators Lizzie Carey-Thomas and Awa Konaté say Barnor’s archive – which includes 40,000 images – amounts to a substantial survey of not just the diaspora in London, but also pre-independence Ghana, as Accra bubbled with Pan-Africanism and hopes for a new future.
“There are so many different avenues you can take with James’s work – it’s such an enormously interesting slice of history, both from the perspective of Barnor and the UK,” Carey-Thomas said. “You never see a James Barnor photograph and think that there’s some kind of impassive documentation. It’s always like there’s a connection there.”
Part of the programme around Barnor’s retrospective includes a virtual launch with participants including Artur, Naomi Campbell, Edward Enninful and Tyler Mitchell, the photographer who shot the recent Kamala Harris Vogue cover and has been influenced by Barnor.
“We are archiving my pictures for future use – I’m leaving my pictures so that they can be used to gain something when I’m gone,” said Barnor.
“Every walk of life needs photography. You need to use it to teach and in order to record an instance. People and portraiture are the most important thing: when you go to a place it’s the people you meet that will be the thing you remember.”
The James Barnor retrospective will open on 19 May at the Serpentine, subject to government guidelines.