5 Minutes With… Violet Caldecott

As it nears the end of term, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Violet discusses James Barnor, the Swinging Sixties, and photography as a means of resistance.

What is your dissertation about?

I wrote my dissertation on British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor and his capturing of Black Britain in the 1960s. I first came across his work in February when I saw his image Wedding Guests (below) on Pinterest. I was struck by the innate poise of the two female subjects, who in their meticulous attire and polished appearance, are the epitome of 1960s cosmopolitan glamour. I love the quietly revolutionary quality of his images. Whilst they are not politically or racially charged on the surface, in their depiction of everyday people, posing amongst the streets of London, they would have proved extremely powerful in both contemporary and post-colonial contexts. There is a retrospective of his work on at the Serpentine Gallery at the moment. Very fortuitously, it opened two weeks before my dissertation was due. It was incredibly exciting to see his images in the flesh. The show has been really beautifully curated, illuminating the multi-dimensionality of Barnor’s work through a diverse range of images from his six-decade career.

James Barnor, Wedding Guests, London, 1960, Photograph © Autograph ABP 

Who is your favourite designer?

Ossie Clark. I love the elegant cut, drape and flow of his pieces. Born in Liverpool in 1942, Clark quickly became known as a pioneer of London’s Swinging Sixties cultural revolution.  His designs offered a more romantic alternative to Mary Quant’s short hemlines, block colours and geometric prints. I came across a silk co-ord designed by him in a vintage boutique on the Portobello Road a couple of weeks ago. Consisting of a pair of billowing high-waisted trousers and a short-sleeved Peter Pan collar top, cinched in by a silk sash at the waist, it is my dream ensemble. The cut and fit are far superior to any item of clothing that I have ever worn. Perfectly proportioned and meticulously tailored around the waist and shoulders, I feel as if it was made for me. Clark really understood the female form. My dream is to become a collector of his pieces.

Ossie Clark with Gala Mitchell c. 1960s, Ossie Clark with Judy Guy Johnson and Patti Boyd c. 1960s, accessed via AnOther Magazine

Favourite dress history photograph?

This is a tough question as I have so many. But with regard to dress, the image which I find myself coming back to is the photograph Neil Kenlock took of Olive Morris in 1973. Morris was a political activist and community leader, known for the part she played in the Squatters Movement and her founding of the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1973. Very sadly, she died aged 27, but in her short life, she achieved an incredible amount. In this image, there is a real sense of her presence as an individual. In faux jacket, worn jeans and assortment of bangles, she appears confident and at ease. It possesses a snapshot quality with the viewer a voyeur looking in at an intimate moment in this remarkable woman’s life. She smokes a cigarette as she huddles by the electric radiator to keep warm. It seems like there is an interaction between her and Kenlock as she beams leaning slightly towards the camera. I love the idea of photography being a collaborative venture between the subject and photographer, with the viewer is privy to the intimacy of their relationship.

Neil Kenlock, Olive Morris, London, 1973, Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London 

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?

In the first semester, I was introduced to the concept of photography as a means of resistance, and within this, the role clothing has played as a means to self-fashioning identities for oppressed groups within society. This fuelled an interest in Stuart Hall’s ‘politics of representation’ which I have applied to different periods and in varying contexts throughout the year. My first essay was on Harlem Renaissance portraiture and how the representational power of the genre was harnessed by various artists of the period to illuminate the complexity and multi-dimensionality of being African American at this time. I was particularly drawn to James VanDerZee’s studio portraits of glamorous young Harmelites. Posing in elegant 1920s clothing against elaborate backdrops, they drew together the different fragments of their diasporic identity in one visual narrative. I’m fascinated by the concept of the tiniest sartorial details having the most significant meaning to the individual and how this can translate to the outside eye.

James VanDerZee, Couple, Harlem, 1932 © Museum of Modern Art, New York

 
Sources
Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool (London: Bloomsbury) 2016
 
https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8992/the-fabulous-femininity-of-ossie-clark
 
https://aperture.org/editorial/how-james-barnors-photographs-became-symbols-of-black-glamour/
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/obituaries/olive-morris-overlooked.html

James Barnor: Britain in the 1960s

After being shut for months due to lockdown, galleries in the UK have finally reopened their doors to visitors. Amongst a plethora of ‘must-see’ shows, the Serpentine Gallery’s highly anticipated James Barnor retrospective is opening to the public this Thursday. Exhibiting a selection of iconic images taken by the Ghanaian photographer during his six-decade career, it aims to highlight his role as a pioneering figure within modern photography.

Now ninety-two and living in the UK, Barnor recalls how he crossed continents and genres to further his knowledge of photography. As a studio photographer and photojournalist, he captured Ghana on the cusp of independence in the 1950s. He later introduced colour photography to the nation in the 1970s. In between these two pivotal chapters of his career, he moved to London, where he documented the city’s transformation into a multicultural metropolis in the post-war era. Working as a documentary and fashion photographer, he harnessed the power of photography to illuminate the multidimensionality of Black experience in Britain in the 1960s.

Drum Cover, Nigerian Edition 1967 @james_barnor_archives

In order to comprehend the power of Barnor’s images and his skill as a photographer, it is important to first understand the complex time he was living in. During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was experiencing a wave of post-war migration as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted people in the Commonwealth full rights to British Citizenship. Whilst this marked a watershed moment in the formation of Black Britain, it was also a dark chapter in the nation’s history with racism inherent in the media, politics and society-at-large. This racial intolerance culminated in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, during which Black people were targeted in violent attacks by white mobs. In the political sphere, various acts were introduced throughout the 1960s which aimed to limit citizenship rights. It was against this backdrop that Barnor worked as a photographer, producing images which were not overtly politically or racially charged in nature, yet prove incredibly impactful given the socio-political landscape of the period.

Drum cover girl Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966 / Drum cover girl Marie Hallowi, London, 1966 @james_barnor_archives

Commissioned by Drum, the South African Anti-Apartheid journal, he photographed Black models engaging with the latest fashions in the streets of London. These were circulated internationally and have come to be known as pioneering images of Black beauty. Presenting a multi-national cohort of Black women against iconic British backdrops such as post boxes, telephone boxes and Underground signs, he visually manifested the merging of different cultures in post-war Britain. Whether he was photographing Erlin Ibreck leaning against a Jaguar in Kilburn, Marie Hallowi feeding birds in Trafalgar Square, or Mike Eghan leaping off the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, Barnor aimed to capture his subject’s essence and individuality at a time when Black Britain was triumphantly coming into being against a challenging socio-political backdrop.

Guests at the Baptism Ceremony of James Vanderpuije, London, early 1960s / Portrait of the sister of a friend of James Barnor, London, c. 1960 @james_barnor_archives

Barnor also photographed his friend’s weddings, christenings and parties. Taken for family albums, these documentary images were intended not for public consumption nor to make a political statement about racism or marginality, but rather to capture key milestones within the multicultural communities which were emerging in Britain at this time. Style was a tool of social and cultural transformation for Barnor’s subjects. Inspired by various factors such as Western culture, urban dress, group identity, African style and gender ideals, they harnessed the communicative power of clothing to visually manifest their own perspective of what constituted being Black and British at that time. Meticulously dressed, they exude a sense of joy and self-assurance as they become part of the social fabric of multicultural Britain.

Friends, Accra, late 1970s / Back to school, Accra, 1970s or 1980s @james_barnor_archives

Barnor’s images of London make up the second of three sections at the Serpentine exhibition. The first section is dedicated to portraits he took in his studio, EverYoung, in Accra during the 1950s, as well as his journalistic photographs of Ghanaian independence. The third and final section is made up of colour photographs taken in post-colonial Ghana on his return from Britain in the 1970s. What unites these three sections is a sense of joy and community. Barnor saw photography as a collaborative venture between the photographer and subject, which created a sense of intimacy. His images of both Ghana and Britain are powerful visual testaments of societies in transition during the latter half of the twentieth century.

By Violet Caldecott

References: 

Campt, Tina M., Image Matters, Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2012

Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, 1990, in Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Stuart Hall (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2021

Olusoga, David, Black and British, A Forgotten History (Pan Macmillian London), 2017

Ed. Mussai, Renée, James Barnor, Ever Young (Autograph ABP: London) 2015

Park, Rianna Jade, How James Barnor’s Photographs Became Symbols of Black Glamour, Aperture, issue 242, New York, March 2021 (Aperture Foundation Inc: London) 2021

https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/about/press/portraits-for-the-future-a-celebration-of-james-barnor/