Fresh air, sea waves crashing on the shore, boats, canoes and ships anchoring and docking bring in goods, provisions and groceries. People – black and white seem busily trying to buy and sell to attend to their needs while the children play in the shore sand and in the sea. The sun shining brightly and the colourful modest houses interspersed with trees and shrubs are the main scenes of Jamestown.
The aroma of local staples on fire and the cries of hawkers as well as playing and crying children fill the air. Up in a distance above, a number of crows caw alternatively and sometimes concurrently in what seems like random noisemaking. A young Ghanaian man stands – right in his early 20s – barefooted and in a shirt and shorts that exposed a sizable portion of his thigh, a big Kodak camera in his hands trying to get a good shot. The year is 1922 –two years after the Titanic sank.
Development through the colonial days
This is the kind of imagery and imagination that the Deo Gratias Photo Studio evokes in the mind of anyone coming to tour its premises. The antique pictures give all visitors a sneak peek into how life was like in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The history that has been documented and preserved through the films of James Koblah Bruce Vanderpuije, who is the founder of the Deo Gratias (meaning Thanks to God) Studio is plain for all to see. James was a son of bourgeois family in Jamestown in Accra and he learned photography from an old master photographer J.A.C. Holm for three years before he later opened the Deo Gratias Studio in 1922 when he was 23. The passion for photography was so strong that he started making portraits of families and groups of the British, Indian traders and the black aristocracy. This got him recognized and he was soon working for international companies.
The studio was built around a time that many of the middle-class families that had lived in Jamestown had already moved to the suburbs of Asylum Down and Adabraka; nevertheless, Jamestown and its environs continued to thrive as the central business district mainly because of the habour that had been built by the British which was the main port of entry into Ghana then. However, from the 1928s going, things changed as the British decided to build another harbour in the Western region of Ghana.
They wanted to extract lucrative minerals directly and bypass Accra. When Ghana’s first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah later built the bigger Tema Harbour and this dealt a crushing blow to Jamestown since it no longer became attractive for trade thoroughfare. Governments and businesses begun to look elsewhere and this has stalled the development of Jamestown – now a mere skeleton of former itself.
During this time, Mr. Bruce worked hard in pursuing his passion – day and night, filming and developing negatives. He took up more works for companies, covering product launches and rebranding exercises for years until the 1970s when age began to take a toll. Throughout the years, James employed other photographers to work with him as well as teach others the art of photography.
Deo Gratias Photo Studio in post-colonial times
Meanwhile, Isaac Hudson Bruce Vanderpuije who is the son of Mr. James Bruce Vanderpuije also started developing love for his father’s profession, although from the beginning his father didn’t teach him. He started observing the people his dad has been working with, how they took pictures, how they developed films. So with time, he became used to processing black and white films. He even went to the extent of trying himself on the camera, then in the evenings entered the dark room ….mixed chemicals and tried to process his own films and see what would come out of it. He tried that on his own films because he didn’t want to damage other people’s film.
After schooling, he decided to work with his dad. Later, he had a government of Ghana scholarship to go and polish his skill in photography. This scholarship saw him attending the High School for Graphic and Book Art (Hoch Schule für Grafiek und Buch Kunst) in Leipzig, Germany.He became the first African to be admitted to the faculty of Photography where he was a student for 5 years.
After he had returned to Ghana, Isaac had some job offers but he ended up accepting to work in a textile company as a photographer, which he accepted and worked there for some time. His work there was a successful one as he had described a situation in which he saved the company hundreds if not thousands of dollars because he was able to produce some things they had hitherto been importing. After working in textiles for some time, Isaac was asked by his dad to come and manage the studio because of his advancing age and deteriorating health. James made it clear to Isaac that if he did not come home to manage the studio, he would close it down. Honouring that invitation, Isaac came and started to work fulltime in the studio; taking breathtaking pictures of some amazing and unique moments in Ghana’s history as well as serving people from all walks of life good portraits when they came in usually on Sundays after church when they are looking really good .
However, as Isaac begun to age, he started to lose his eyesight and was glad to know that one of his children – Kate Tamakloe (neé Vanderpuije ) was interested in photography and the studio. Although she has not been formally trained in photography, she takes good shots and manages the studio. Mrs. Tamakloe has great plans for the studio as she plans on up scaling it and increasing its revenue and aesthetic value especially by constructing a second floor and getting a permanent gallery exhibition space. Deo Gratias Studio now mostly serves as a gallery for tourists and also many people come there for their passport pictures to be taken.
Deo Gratias Studio is 108 years old in 2020 and till date remains the oldest photo gallery in Ghana. The general public is invited to come and identify old relatives in the photos in addition to touring the facility and getting a hint of how things were back then through the lenses of the photographers. If you happen to be in Accra, you have to make it a point to visit the Deo Gratias Studio and have an experience of a lifetime.