Title: Colour me beautiful: James Barnor's photographs for Drum magazine
Back in the 1960s, when fashion shoots featuring black models were rare, the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor bucked the trend with his fashion shoots for Drum magazine. By: Kate Salter Dated: 07 December 2010
The picture of a young woman leaning against a shiny grey Jaguar was taken in Kilburn, north London, in 1966. 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.
The pictures shown here of young women with 1960s-style beehives and miniskirts were shot as fashion stories for Drum , an influential anti-apartheid magazine based in Johannesburg, and Africa's first black lifestyle magazine.
The photographer was James Barnor, a Ghanaian, whose photographs are to form part of an important archive being put together by Autograph ABP, a charity that received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to build the Archive and Research Centre for Culturally Diverse Photography.
Barnor, now a twinkly-eyed 82-year-old, liked to set his Drum fashion stories against typical London backdrops, such as Tube stations or red telephone boxes.
Erlin Ibreck, the model in the main photograph who was 19 at the time, remembers Barnor asking her to pose in Trafalgar Square while flocks of excited pigeons landed on her. 'I was more nervous about the pigeons than people around us who were staring.'
Some of the models were professional, but Ibreck was someone Barnor spotted in a bus queue at Victoria station. Ibreck was living in Cheshire but visiting her sister, who lived in London. Barnor asked if she would like to be photographed for Drum magazine and eventually she agreed.
Encouraged by Barnor, Ibreck enrolled at the Lucie Clayton modelling school in Manchester, but finding work as a black model in the 1960s was not easy.
'It was very tough as there were very few black models,' she says. 'I was selected by Lucie Clayton to model De Beers diamonds - a South African company, and this was during apartheid. When they discovered that I was black De Beers cancelled the booking and chose a white model.
'That booking would have enhanced my career, so it was a very painful experience to have been rejected on the basis of my colour. This experience made me realise what I was up against.' After two years Ibreck gave up modelling and moved to New York.
Although Barnor says he wasn't consciously attempting to chronicle 'black culture' in England, and was simply taking photographs of things that interested him and the readers of Drum , the effect was, none the less, an optimistic suggestion that these cosmopolitan young African women were part of the exciting new, multicultural society in London that people were talking about.
Barnor's memories of the time seem to be largely positive, and he says he doesn't remember experiencing any overt racism. 'I moved in enlightened circles so I did not have to put up with most of what other black people had to go through, though I did notice when I sat on a bus many people didn't want to sit next to me.'
I ask Barnor if he ever had curious looks from passers-by - a black photographer taking pictures of a black model. He shrugs and says, 'I didn't think of what people thought of me. I just thought about what shot I could get.'
Barnor had come to England in 1959 to study at Medway College of Art in Kent. When he left Ghana he already had a successful career as a portrait photographer with his own studio, and was a well-known photojournalist who documented Ghana's campaign for independence during the 1950s.
In 1953 Barnor opened his Ever Young studio, where people paid to have pictures taken to celebrate occasions such as weddings, parties or new jobs, as in the picture above left of the four proud young nurses in their new uniforms.
The studio was named after a piece of English comprehension Barnor had studied as a boy, which described a princess who stayed young by eating magic apples. It was also something, Barnor says, that alluded to his retouching techniques.
'I learnt to retouch by hand. Long before Photoshop existed you would use a pencil. I would retouch the pictures to make people look younger.' The studio had no running water so Barnor filled buckets from a communal tap for developing his pictures, and, as electricity was expensive, took most of the photographs in the daytime.
In the late 1950s Barnor decided to further his qualifications in England. 'My first impression of London was of all the posters advertising things and the colour and variety. As someone with a visual mind I found it very exciting.
'But it wasn't easy for a black person to do photography. If at all, it would be in the darkroom - backstage, where you don't face the customer or the client. We were excited when we heard of people like David Bailey who were becoming famous. But there wasn't much chance to meet them.'
After 10 years in England Barnor returned to Ghana, where he helped open the first colour-processing laboratory in the country. Twenty-four years later he moved back to London.
For an octogenarian living in sheltered accommodation, the prospect of a first retrospective and inclusion in an important archive has been exciting, and Barnor is clearly delighted at his recent exposure. 'Better late than never,' he says with a smile.
For more info visit: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/galleries/TMG8176562/1/Colour-me-beautiful-James-Barnors-photographs.html
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