Accra / London - A Retrospective. Until 31 July 2022 at the Art Museum of Italian Switzerland in Lugano - MASI / Palazzo Reali

A photographer should not go out on the street to take pictures, but to take pictures because he goes out on the street. The difference between the two attitudes is subtle and profound at the same time. Exploring the city, wandering the streets, observing life, views, people, animals, architecture in a new way, in familiar or unfamiliar places, capturing the "decisive moment" with the camera and telling stories: "If I needed a photo or a new story, I would rush to the Makola market, where people behave more like themselves. I liked this more than studio photography. I used a small camera. It was great for finding stories, ”says James Barnor. Born in Accra, Ghana in 1929, he now lives and works in London, and in his career, which spans six decades and two continents, he witnessed the social and political changes of his time. Moving between different places, cultures and genres (from photojournalism to studio portraits, to documentary photography, to fashion and lifestyle photography) he has always stood out for his modern outlook and his pioneering approach.

A chronological story

MASI Lugano, in collaboration with Serpentine London, will present the largest retrospective ever dedicated to his work until July 31st. “James Barnor: Accra / London - A Retrospective” showcases over 200 works from the photographer's archive, including numerous unpublished images. In addition to vintage works, reprints and original documents, also magazine covers and records. The exhibition itinerary unfolds from the beginnings in Accra to stays in London, like a chronological story.

Official history and personal stories

James Barnor began photographing in the early 1950s in Accra, Ghana (an English colony that was becoming independent) where he founded his studio Ever Young. The rigid structure of large-format studio portraiture melts into dynamic and informal images as soon as he leaves the studio and tripods to venture out onto the street, hunting for stories. He gets assignments for the Daily Graphic, becoming the country's first photojournalist. Already in these early works, he tells official history and personal stories in the same way that intertwine in an intimate dialogue.

A counter-current eye

He moved to London in 1959: in the English capital, he portrays the life of the African community, becoming the most important witness of the African diaspora. His shots of him for the South African magazine Drum tell the London Swinging Sixties through a direct and counter-current gaze: in a world of whites, he puts on the cover models of African descent such as Erlin Ibreck and Marie Hallowi. He returns to Accra to found Ghana's first color photography laboratory. Access to color also revolutionizes the role of photography: “Color has really changed people's ideas about photography. Kente is a Ghanaian woven fabric with many different colors and people wanted to be photographed after church or in the city wearing this fabric, so the news spread quickly, ”says Barnor. Several images of him on display show decorations, hairstyles, clothing and fashion of the time.

Calendars and disc covers

There are also numerous commercial commissions, including a promotional calendar for Agip, in 1974: on display is a current shot that presents elegant colored models against the background of cans and tank trucks. Fees that also include photographs of disc covers. The exhibition is completed by a video by Campbell Addy, in which Barnor presents his work, and a video-documentary in which he illustrates his photographic technique.

The catalog

Published by König, co-produced by Serpentine Galleries of London, MASI Lugano and Detroit Institute of Arts, designed and illustrated by Mark El-khatib, the rich English-language catalog includes contributions by Christine Barthe, sir David Adjaye OBE, David Hartt, Alicia Knock, Erlin Ibreck and a conversation between James Barnor and Hans Ulrich Obrist.