In Conversation with James Barnor, in Comparison with Malick Sidibé By Aarti wa Njoroge
James Barnor likes to use his age (82) to his advantage. “I am old. I can tell old things and no-one will challenge me!” he teases the audience during a conversation with Yves Chatap, art critic and curator, on 13 March 2012 at the Tiwani Contemporary Gallery in London.
Later, he says, “I will throw in some lies because I know you weren’t born. If you spot a lie, I’ll give you a signed copy of one of my pictures.” A collective sound of excitement rises from the audience. “I introduced colour processing to Ghana.” This has been documented by Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research (U.S.A.) and The Telegraph newspaper (U.K.), and apparently not challenged, so no signed Barnor yet.
When asked about the name – Ever Young – he gave to his studio in Accra (opened in 1953 according to the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, and 1949 according to Tiwani), he responds that there is “a short, but long, story behind it.” He describes the three types of English lesson (grammar, composition, comprehension) he used to have. In a comprehension class in 1945, his last year at school, he read a story – twice – about a never-empty casket of apples that would “refresh”, where the elderly turned into youth, and in which the phrase “ever young” appeared.
It also applies to “the strict discipline of re-touching”. “[You] spend thirty minutes to an hour on one thing. Fill your wrinkles… The final product has to change the person.”
“First recording of labour in Ghana”
Yet he spent many years doing editorial photography, “documenting society”. He joined The Graphic newspaper when it was started by the U.K.’s Mirror Group in the 1950s. “I was the first staff photographer in Ghana. Prior to the Mirror Group coming to Ghana, there was no ‘paper with photos with every story… Cecil King – chairman of the Mirror Group in the ‘50s – he’s somebody who can check on me!”
King did not beat about the bush as he looked through a box of Barnor’s photos: “Not quite, but we’ll train you.” One senses the thrill of working for a newspaper in the run-up to Ghana’s independence in Barnor’s description. “We had three months to prepare. They got the best compositors… We had a white editorial advisor, a black editor, sub-editor etc. Every morning there would be a press conference for the day ahead. We didn’t have a processing and grading department. Over time, the Nigerians came to teach the Ghanaians.”
In parallel, Barnor continued taking private portraits. “I didn’t have a studio as such. I carried cameras to people’s houses. I carried a backdrop [ordered from abroad] as well.” Patience, he reckoned, allowed him to excel at groups and babies; he also had commercial nous. “When you take a group photograph, you intention is to sell to everybody.
You need to ensure everyone is visible, [with] no raised hands.” Barnor would enlarge passport photos to 8x10, which would be “more expensive than the passport!”
A 1967 Drum cover of Rosemarie Thompson
When the proprietor of Drum magazine first came to Ghana, he was brought to Barnor’s studio. We do not get to hear more about this (except that Drum’s founder was a World War II pilot) as Barnor moves on to a story about the hangings that took place in the prison opposite his studio. The fingerprints of the person about to be hanged would be taken one day prior. They would be taken again afterwards, to ensure it was the same person.
“Who doesn’t talk about the ‘60s?”
Ten years after starting as a photographer, Barnor moved to England to study at Medway College of Art. Having captured Ghana during its period of heady transition, he arrived in London as it was undergoing a cultural shift. “Employed before I’d finished college” for Drum, “I would find the model [whether professional or not], or they would find me.”
Gone were the simulated backdrops. Tiwani Gallery exhibits a 1967 Drum cover of Rosemarie Thompson with a bright red scarf around her neck matching the pillar box in the background. A 1966 cover (not part of the exhibition) features Erlin Ibreck, whom Barnor came across accidentally, “leaning against a shiny grey Jaguar. The pastel minidress, heavy fringe and costume jewellery feel instantly familiar as belonging to the era, but while we're used to seeing a pallid Twiggy or Penelope Tree striding about London in fashion shoots from the same time, we rarely see images in which the model is black.”
Erlin Ibreck by James Barnor
Tiwani also has pictures of an exuberant Mike Eghan, broadcaster for the BBC Africa Service, at Piccadilly Circus, and Mohammed Ali training in Earl’s Court for his fight with Henry Cooper, both from the same period. A fourth portrait is of two young girls holding a ball imprinted with Agfa in Ghana in 1972. Barnor had returned two years earlier to set up the first colour processing laboratory he mentioned in his conversation.
Revolutions are not political; western music causes them
That Barnor escaped working for a local newspaper when he did was fortunate. Otherwise he, and Malick Sidibé, who avoided this altogether, would have been constrained to crafting the personality cults of post-colonial African media’s parasites – opportunistic politicians on their interminable domestic campaign trails – the positive or negative tone dependent on where their political standing was in line with the medium’s proprietors.
At his studio, Sidibé (b. 1936, Soloba, modern-day Mali) had the inevitable array of props and accessories – transistors, flowers, handbags, briefcases, even a motorbike. Like Barnor, Sidibé did not rely entirely on an artificial setting, hopping in his case between bars and parties, capturing a high-spirited youth. Stylistically, Sidibé “expanded the parameters of portrait photography and made it dynamic.”
The content was a newly-confident society: couples dancing or standing close together or friends wielding records (Arsenio Rodriguez & the Afro-Cubano Sound of Now, Pacheco). “The true revolution in Mali had not been political: Western music had brought it about.”
He nevertheless also photographed the customary, even where foreign influence had crept in, such as Les musiciens (Bamako, 1979) – kora players, guitarists and singers, in western and traditional dress.
If charity can’t begin at home…
Sidibé has travelled around the world, but “could never leave Africa. […] I am just a small African man who has narrated his country, always amazed by the tribute the world has been paying me.” The self-assurance of independence may have lost its shine, not least with the latest political turmoil in Mali, but the narrative continues.
This said, he has also covered the work of foreign designers, but – in contrast to Barnor’s western-attired black models in outdoor western settings for an African magazine – Sidibé, almost half a century later, shot locals (including members of his own family) in his Bagadadji studio wearing “Africa”-inspired clothes for The New York Times.
Barnor’s western-attired black models in outdoor western settings for an African magazine
Funding has helped renew interest in Barnor’s work since 2010. Autograph ABP, a charity, received a grant from the U.K.’s Heritage Lottery Fund to build the Archive and Research Centre for Culturally Diverse Photography, open since 2011 at Rivington Place, London. While we are not sure about the centre’s name – political correctness? – we appreciate the initiative.
Back in Ghana, facilities during Barnor’s early career were limited. “The studio had no running water so he filled buckets from a communal tap for developing his pictures, and, as electricity was expensive, took most of the photographs in the daytime.” When he first met Cecil King, he “was washing prints in the sunshine.”
Today, although Barnor has again been living in London since 1994, he is concerned that Ghanaian photographers do not share equipment or advice, and wants to change this. He would like to provide a space with computers for his compatriots to “meet, mix, criticise each other’s work, and exhibit”. Real and virtual collaboration could be next phase for Ghanaian photography.
1. J. K. Bruce Vanderpuije (1899-1989), who opened the Deo Gratias studio in Accra in 1922, photographed the town’s African and western high society during the first half of the twentieth century. The studio is still active today, thanks to his son Isaac Hudson Bruce Vanderpuije. (Laura Serani, Portrait Art and Tradition in African Photography, from the Gold Coast to Bamako, from Malick Sidibé: la vie en rose, SilvanaEditoriale.) This is not the first time Africancolours has brought Ghana and Mali together: see John Owoo’s review of the exhibition of Bruce Vanderpuije’s photographs in Mali (http://www.africancolours.com/african-art-features/8/ghana/memories_of_accra_a_rich_history_of_a_city_through_the_lens.htm). As is so often the case, this exhibition was thanks to the French Embassy.
2 According to Laura Serani, Africans in the nineteenth century rapidly got “acquainted with photography from Western technicians and photographers, as one would do with a foreign language. […] Unfortunately few traces have been left of these early experiences as the archives were scattered and conservation processes lacking.” (Portrait Art and Tradition in African Photography, from the Gold Coast to Bamako, from Malick Sidibé: la vie en rose, SilvanaEditoriale.)
5 Peter Stepan on Malick Sidibé, Icons of Photography, Prestel.
6 Laura Incardona, A Story: Conversation with Malick Sidibé, from Malick Sidibé: la vie en rose, SilvanaEditoriale. In Twist, “Young Malians in elegant evening garb have put a record on […]. The figure of the male dancer filling the background, seen from behind, directs our gaze on to the pleasant, concentrated face of his partner – both of them in the crouched posture typical of this dance. The young modern townspeople have abandoned the tribal dances of the rural regions and are enjoying dancing socially in couples in the Western fashion, but in a way that again displays almost ritualistic forms.” (Peter Stepan on Malick Sidibé, Icons of Photography, Prestel.) Something similar could be said about the disruption brought about by jazz to India. While the peak of its influence started before India’s independence from Britiain, “unlike the upper-crust jazz fans of the 1930s, most of them [by the 1950s] were drawn from the professional middle classes. […Despite] the compulsion of “Indianisation” that came with Independence, they were furthering the long-standing effort to adapt Western forms to reflect Indian realities.” (Naresh Fernandes, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, Roli Books.)
8 Laura Incardona, A Story: Conversation with Malick Sidibé, from Malick Sidibé: la vie en rose, SilvanaEditoriale
Laura Serani, Portrait Art and Tradition in African Photography, from the Gold Coast to Bamako, from Malick Sidibé: la vie en rose, SilvanaEditoriale