The Man Who Pictured Ghana’s Rise at Home and Abroad

94-year-old British-Ghanaian photographer james burner He calls himself “Lucky Jim”. In a career spanning more than 60 years and spanning two continents, he has been “in the right place at the right time and met the right people,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in London.

James Varner: Accra/London, a major retrospective of his work spanning genres ranging from studio and street photography, photojournalism and fashion, the quietly intimate to the historical and iconic. It’s easy to not believe him watching.exhibited at The Serpentine Gallery in London in 2021the exhibition is presented in an enlarged form. Detroit Institute of Artsuntil October 15th.

Low-key photo of Federal Featherweight Boxing Champion Roy Ankura, taken by Verner in 1952. Mr. Vana decided to accompany Mr. Ankura and his wife Rebecca when they visited a friend, the independence leader. Kwame NkrumahHe transformed the Gold Coast from a British colony into the Republic of Ghana, becoming its first Prime Minister in 1957 and later becoming President. Varner struck three poses on Nkrumah’s sofa, then jumped into the frame, perched on an armrest, and became part of a momentous history unfolding.

“This photo makes a lot of light on James’s opportunism, his ability to capitalize on the scenario that is in front of him at the moment,” said Lizzie Carey-Thomas, co-curator of The Serpentine Show. said. “He always seemed to be aware that something really important was going on.”

More than 170 photographs in the exhibition document Bahner’s pivotal role in representing emerging nations and national self-consciousness. According to historians, he became Ghana’s first photojournalist in the 1950s. He worked in London during his tumultuous sixties, photographing the fashion and life of Ghanaian expats and celebrities. In 1969 he returned to Accra and founded what is believed to be the first color photography lab in the country. (He returned permanently to London in his 1994.)

Although not yet as well known as his contemporaries, such as American photojournalist and activist Kwame Brathwaite and Malian photographer Malik Sidibe, Bahner has been celebrated in recent years.and Virtual celebration of the 2021 bannerphotographers Tyler Mitchell and Samuel Fosso, and artist Tourmaline were among those who cited Berner’s pioneering work and profound influence.

Antoine Sargent, who held an exhibition about young black photographers, “New Black Vanguard” Verner will visit the DIA in 2021-2022, and said Mr. Verner’s retrospective is an important follow-up.

“The Detroit audience gets to see the younger generation of photographers like Campbell Addy, Awol Elizuk, Tyler Mitchell, Ruth Ossai, now and now, and now they can see who their photographers are. You can tell if you were looking back,” Sargent said. interview. “That doesn’t usually happen. A lot of organizations like to think that black artists don’t have history. This creates a lineage, and James is firmly in that lineage.”

Sargent added, “Berner was the first to capture our notions of beauty and self-determination from within the community, and subsequent generations have built on his photography.”

Born in 1929, Varner left school early to apprentice in photography with his cousin JP Dodoo, and in 1952 established his first studio in Jamestown, Accra. He named the space “Ever Young,” after Norse mythology about a goddess with an apple orchard. And indeed, he captured the energy and aspirations of young Ghanaians in the years leading up to independence. Ever His Young became a cultural center, and Bahner took photographs of the people who gathered there: individuals and families in western and traditional costumes. A woman who graduated from the police academy raised her hand and saluted. A yoga practitioner who combines a series of asanas.

“James Varner’s photos are instantly recognizable,” says Carrie-Thomas. “It has a very special quality in his engagement with the subject. You can see the fact that he’s conversing with the sitters.”

He sometimes placed portrait subjects outdoors (“daylight was free,” he laughs). He replaced his unwieldy studio equipment with a small camera to capture street life. Young people piled up in a car without a roof and go out to play. A man in a shirt that reads “Nigerian Superman” rides a precariously balanced bicycle. Ankla and her family eating breakfast (a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes is prominently placed on the table) or listening to records on their shiny new hi-fi sound like theirs. A mirror for a growing middle class that is equally hungry for products and fun. So-called developed country counterparts.

His career developed with the expansion of print journalism in West Africa. When the Daily Graphic, a newspaper owned by the Daily Mirror of London, began operations in Ghana in 1950, he sought out local photojournalists. “Miller’s photographer saw my work and said, ‘Oh, not yet, but we’ll train you.'”

The image Burner created for the drums, A highly influential South African magazine with an international audience, alongside Daily Graphic and UK-based magazines black Star Over the years, film companies have provided us with valuable insight into the first country in Africa to decolonize. His photographs at the DIA show Nkrumah and the rise of his National Liberation Movement, as well as British riot police dispersing political rallies.

Arai Qualco Poman expert in African art, Nancy Barr Verner, of the photography department who curated the DIA show, said his political neutrality allowed him to move between factions. “He claimed he was non-aligned. No one thought he was dangerous,” Ms Qualcoupom said.

Photos from the 1957 Independence Celebration in Accra include a photo of then-Vice President Richard Nixon during his tenure. Just visit Africa Many Ghanaians believed they were motivated by a desire to gain an economic foothold in a resource-rich region.

Two years after decolonization, Varner took a ship to England at the recommendation of a friend — “London is the place for you,” the letter read. He did fashion and editorial photography for immigrant magazines in the West Indies, Africa and South Asia, and was pursuing a college degree. He eventually got a job at a large color processing lab.

Examples of his fashion photography are also exhibited in museums in New York. “African Fashion” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Varner recruited models from Africa on the street and asked them to bring their own clothes to the shoot. We had no wardrobe budget.

Arlene Ybleck, one of the women who posed for the retrospective exhibition catalog, said she never thought she was more beautiful than the photos she had seen in other magazines, but wanted to work with Berner. By doing so, he “felt like he was complicit in destroying public acceptance.” It is about replacing images of beauty with new and equally effective expressions. ”

During our conversation, Varner expressed some regrets about his decision to return to Ghana in 1969. “I was at the height of my fame and prosperity,” he said of London. “But I had the opportunity to bring back something that was not in Africa: color photography and color printing. Color photography and color printing were also new in Europe in the 1960s.”

Verner pointed to a 1971 photo of a store clerk outside the new Schick-Hagemeier Color Processing Laboratory in Accra. She holds a brightly colored plastic bottle, with more bottles at her feet, a carefully composed study of turquoise, coral and white. “This was my announcement,” Verner explained. “I take color photos here in Ghana, develop them here, print them here, and you know I can do it.”

A few years later, Varner founded a new business in Accra, Studio X23. But when Ghana’s economy collapsed in the mid-1980s, he returned to London. There, Verner lost momentum as a photographer and landed a steady job as a cleaner at Heathrow Airport, a turnaround he said was a typical immigration story.

Qualkoupom, who grew up in Accra, learned about Verner’s work from one of his older brothers who was researching his family history. Intrigued, he and Verner traveled to Paris, where Verner’s archive of 32,000 images of him is maintained. Gallery Clementine de la Ferroniere. Barr had aggressively expanded the DIA’s collection of African photographs, including acquiring Mr. Verner’s work, so it made sense to suspend the Serpentine survey.

The curators said they were struck by the fact that Verner had “so many stories. It was rare to hear a living photographer with such a brilliant mind and memory.” Qualcorpom said.

What he didn’t expect was that the photographer’s story touched on his own history. “Each conversation reveals something new about my family,” said Qualkoupom.

The curator showed me a picture in the gallery of an elegantly dressed woman in a caftan leaning against a TV stand with a silver tinsel Christmas tree. This was his uncle’s wife. On the wall behind her was a framed photograph of her uncle, also by Verner. So far, Varner has found more than 75 photographs in the archives that show his relationship with Qualcoupom.

“I feel like, ‘Oh my God, the only thing James doesn’t know about me is my DNA,'” Qualcoupome said.

But the impact his own family had on Varner’s career was even more surprising. “My uncle actually gave me £10 to buy his first camera,” said the curator. “Burner’s Studio X23 was in his grandfather’s backyard!”

Ms. Verner, who was unable to travel to Detroit for the exhibition, laughed when I told Mr. Qualcoupham’s words. “I’m the last one left,” he said. “Everyone I know now is younger than me. I have more stories to tell them than they themselves know.”

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