James Barnor celebrated his 94th birthday this past June with an amazing gift for the rest of us: the opening of the first U.S. retrospective of works by the influential Ghanaian photographer.

James Barnor: Accra/London—A Retrospective, the exhibition currently on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), features more than 170 photos from Barnor’s archive of over 32,000 images, dating mainly from the 1950s to the 1980s. The artist spent six decades documenting times of major social, cultural and political changes in his native country and of the African diaspora in the UK, including a self-portrait with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first African-born president.

According to exhibition co-curator Nii Quarcoopome, who is the department head of Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas at DIA,  Barnor began as a studio photographer before venturing into other genres like photojournalism, documentary, fashion and commercial work. His work as a portraitist includes families and members of Accra, Ghana's thriving middle class in the 1950s, images not often seen in media around the globe. 

“This Detroit retrospective exhibition is a great honor because it summarizes my story. Every photograph in it is more than art; it is a slice of the past that you will not find in books,” Barnor declares to EBONY. 

“Over many decades, with a camera in hand, I have written a version of the African story that I hope Black people everywhere will also value as part of their history. Most importantly, I have set an example that young photographers will proudly follow.”

Here, Quarcoopome guides us through five amazing photos to see from Barnor’s six-decade-plus career.

First photograph taken at Ever Young Studio, Jamestown, Accra, James Barnor, 1953. Image: courtesy of the artist/Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris.

This picture of a young woman, the first he shot inside his Ever Young Studio, speaks to Barnor's early practice as a portraitist. Barnor photographed Accra’s thriving middle class which included lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses and civil servants. His photographs challenge negative perceptions about Africans who, at the time, were juggling tradition and modernity like the rest of the world.    

James Barnor (Ghana, b. 1929). Self-portrait with Kwame Nkrumah (far left), and Roy and Rebecca Ankrah (center), Accra, c. 1952 (printed 2010–20). Gelatin silver print. Autograph, London.
Self-portrait with Kwame Nkrumah (far left) and Roy and Rebecca Ankrah (center), James Barnor, 1952. Image: courtesy of the artist/Autograph, London.

Barnor’s work for the local newspaper Daily Graphic enabled him to document some important personalities and events in the critical run-up to Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957. This intimate self-portrait shows him (far right), together with then-newly crowned Commonwealth featherweight champion and wife Roy and Rebecca Ankrah (center) and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (far left), the political activist and future first prime minister and president of Ghana.

ames Barnor (Ghana, b. 1929). Drum Magazine, Nigerian edition, December 1967. Sciences Po Bordeaux.
Drum Magazine cover-Nigerian edition, James Barnor, 1967. Image: courtesy of the artist/Sciences Po Bordeaux.

Barnor was the London-based fashion photographer for Drum, a South African-based magazine. In his role, he worked with women of African descent, including students, professional models and actors. This cover image features the model Helen
de Coteau from Trinidad, who collaborated with Barnor to redefine and emphasize Black beauty on London’s fashion newsstands.

James Barnor Two friends dressed for a church celebration posing with Barnor’s car
Two friends dressed for a church celebration, James Barnor, 1970. Image: courtesy the artist/Autograph, London.

When Barnor returned to Accra from London in 1970, he focused on capturing the social change in fashion. This photograph of two women dressed for church exemplifies that transformation. Their outfits, which combine a skirt and shawl made from the colorful, locally handwoven Kente fabric, signal an emerging sense of national identity beyond colonial control. 

James Barnor Photo session with musician, Salaga Market, Accra, c.1974-76 Gelatin silver print. Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris.
Photo session with musician, Salaga Market, Accra, James Barnor, 1974-76.
Image: courtesy of the artist/Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière, Paris.

Barnor’s photograph of a young musician performing outdoors near Salaga market exemplifies his interest in the local youth and fashion trends. Ghanaians were already familiar with American pop culture through the movies and TV shows, and the 1971 Soul-to-Soul musical extravaganza featured numerous black American musical celebrities like Wilson Picket, Tina Turner and Isaac Hayes.

See the full exhibition at the Detroit Institute of the Arts through October 15, 2023.