James Barnor (Photofile)

Image of James Barnor (Photofile)
Release Date: 
May 15, 2024
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

“a solid little book perfect for anyone interested in a jump-start introduction to James Barnor.”

James Barnor is the latest addition to the Photofile series of books, an offshoot of the French “photo poche” (literally “pocket photo”) collection that ran from 1986 to 1992 out of the National Center of Photography in Paris. A lovely group of thoughtfully composed booklets, they are each no bigger than the average moleskine notebook and just as easy to slip into one’s jacket.

Barnor is a timely addition to the series, having just been the subject of a string of exhibitions around the world (including an exceptional retrospective at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum). His photography captures the seismic shifts of the long ’60s over two continents, chronicling rapidly changing societies in both Ghana and the United Kingdom.

Like the other books in the collection, this is meant to be an introduction to the photographer, a bird’s-eye view of his oeuvre. The layout is user-friendly, with a total of 72 images justified to the top of each right-hand page (with a few exceptions getting a two-page spread), and brief captions located in the bottom left. It’s a very flip-throughable format.

The seven-page introduction by photography historian Christine Barthe is also remarkably digestible for those interested in learning more about Barnor. Beyond generic biography, she situates his work in the cultural history of both Accra and London, explaining the evolution of Barnor’s practice as well as that of his subjects. The final pages present a concise but informative timeline of Barnor’s life, a list of notable exhibitions of his work, and a tidy suggested reading list for those ready to take a deeper dive.

The first half of the book focuses on Barnor’s time in Accra: how he began as a studio photographer reusing kitschy props to create charming compositions. In a less skilled artist’s hands they might come across as naive; however, Barnor’s honest approach to composition and stage-setting reveals a tenderness, an intimacy that immediately endears the subjects to the viewer. These images also reflect a society in shift. Ghana was on the verge of independence from England, and Barnor provides the viewer with a window into a country full of optimism and joy. 

The transition to the London half of the book jumps off the page, not only because the countries were worlds apart both physically and culturally, but because these are also the first color photos in the collection. This isn’t just the England of the Beatles, though—Barnor focuses on the African diaspora in London, showing moments of joy and community, interracial relationships, celebrations, and endless style.

For those unfamiliar with his work, perhaps the most surprising moment comes when Muhammad Ali appears. A boxing enthusiast, Barnor reveals a behind-the-scenes version of Ali, practicing before a fight or walking toward certain victory.

The book ends with Barnor’s return to Accra, where he highlights a country far different than the one he left. Women in bell bottoms and crop tops, modern cars, and evidence of industrialization all point to a postcolonial future. Overall, a solid little book perfect for anyone interested in a jump-start introduction to James Barnor.