James Barnor Through the Lens of the New Generation
"James Barnor's photography is uplifting and exuberant - his documentations of Black British style are eternal and powerful."
On the occasion of James Barnor‘s retrospective at Serpentine, curator and writer Bianca Manu speaks to young artists and photographers from West Africa and the diaspora about the enduring influence and legacy of the 92-year-old British-Ghanaian photographer.
James Barnor’s enthusiasm for education and passing on knowledge to the next generation is central to his ethos of generosity. Barnor does not dwell on the past but lives in the warm glow of nostalgia: always ready to talk about his life lessons and impart advice to inspire photographers and artists of the future. He is resplendent when he talks of Ghana on the cusp of independence, being a photojournalist on assignment for the Daily Graphic (Ghana’s oldest and largest newspaper), the scandalous parties, politics and photographing Drum covers in ’60s London. Barnor’s willingness to share his time, experiences, and talent is precious to so many. Here, we share a selection of offerings from a new era of talent that pay tribute to the pioneer’s enduring influence.
– Bianca A. Manu, Curator & Writer
Adama Jalloh, Photographer
I first came across James Barnor’s work a few years ago during my time at university when attempting to find Black photographers who documented the UK. Despite his career spanning different eras, the people and moments he captured, both in London and Accra, had a warmth and familiarity that I recognised. Over the years, as I’ve furthered my practice, I still find myself going back to Barnor’s images for guidance and as a reminder of the importance of photographing traditions within Black communities.
“His work was pivotal because it captured Ghana at a time when it was resolidifying its cultural identity after gaining independence in the 1960s.” – Joshua Kissi
Joshua Kissi, Photographer & Director
When I think of James Barnor’s work, it brings life to a layer of my own experience that I didn’t know could be photographed and expressed through storytelling: representing being Ghanaian and being of the diaspora. His images represent the in-between of cultures clashing, of cultures mixing and people moving from one place to another while still trying to keep the things that they love and appreciate. His work was pivotal because it captured Ghana at a time when it was resolidifying its cultural identity after gaining independence in the 1960s. We have those photos to look to for decades of important moments. In general, I think he photographed us [Ghanaians and the diaspora] with a delicate care and intentionality and I truly wanted to replicate that essence in my work.
Every time I see his images, I feel there is a special connection that is hard to reproduce unless you know and respect the people you are photographing. Barnor taught me everything about what photography can be and the storytelling mechanism behind it. I’ve always been inspired by his work: from his photographs in Ghana to the rest of the world. It shows that you can apply your eye to many different people and still find some commonality, still find some cultural exchange, still find some story to be told. That’s something he did beautifully with his work that I look to do in my work.
“The time that we’re in now really feels like another African renaissance. It’s similar to what was happening when Barnor started taking photographs.” – Mahaneela
Mahaneela, Director & Photographer, DJ, Model
James Barnor is a huge inspiration. Being half Ghanaian and of the Ghanaian diaspora and having his work as a blueprint for portrait photography has been incredible. When I first discovered his work, I was just mind blown by his use of colour, especially during that time. I feel like he set the tone for what portrait photography would be for the coming years. He influenced a whole new generation of photographers in the same way. When he was photographing, it was a time of great liberation for Ghanaian people, and he also captured the African diaspora in the UK in his work. That struck a chord with me as a photographer because I am also a British person from the diaspora, so I resonated with both experiences. I document my peers who are all African diaspora Brits, so I feel like there’s a parallel there.
The time that we’re in now really feels like another African renaissance. It’s similar to what was happening when Barnor started taking photographs. We see styles combined, merging cultures and aesthetics; that was something you also saw in the sixties. He showed us young Ghanaians moving to the UK and learning how to adjust and shape a new culture of what it is to be a British Ghanaian and what it is to be British and still fiercely African. I feel like we are seeing another renaissance of that kind, with the world looking to Africa. Africa is leading as far as culture and music go, so it feels like we’ve come full circle. His work is still as relevant and striking as it was then.
Eric Gyamfi, Photographer
There are so many aspects of James Barnor’s work that intrigue me: his adaptable technical abilities, his innovative spirit, his incredible relationship to a broad range of subject matters and his experimentations with the medium itself.
These days, the part of his work that I am most interested in is the duration that the oeuvre occupies. When one considers such a collection, made over six decades, you begin to notice how time unfolds – in specific areas and places, in the people and other subject matters.
This quality of observing how time unfolds across many webs is the most interesting to me. The spirit of photography has been hinged so much on fixing time, making things almost permanent. However, a collection such as his allows us to experience the individual photograph and all that it preserves, but also the gift to see how things change, or remain the same, through the collection as a whole as I think it speaks more to my thoughts about James Barnor’s work.
Ofoe Amegavie, Filmmaker & Photographer
I love Mr. James Barnor’s work. I recall seeing his work for the first time at an exhibition in the Accra Mall, I think in 2013. Later, I had the honour of meeting him and listening to his anecdotes. Mr Barnor’s work has become instrumental in finding inspiration to capture Accra. Every time I am outdoors doing street photography, capturing youth culture, I always have more black and white images than colour. For me, Mr Barnor’s work has become the ultimate black and white reference for capturing some of the Accra scenes I come across.
Aaron Yeboah, Graphic Designer, 2dots Space Agency & Founder, African Lens
The impact of James Barnor’s works are beyond words, in all honesty. His work brings together history, culture, education, untold stories of African diaspora, an appreciation of African beauty, identity and more. James Barnor’s photographs serve as a blueprint for young African photographers to learn and appreciate our people and culture, to continue telling our stories and creating an archive for the next generation.
“In that personal effort to make sense of all the changes happening around him, he preserved an authentic Ghanaian account of the birth of our nation and continent, in a voice that will always be ‘ever young.’” – Nana Kofi Acquah
Francis Kokoroko, Photographer
James Barnor continues to be an inspiration. His work serves as a reminder of why photography is still necessary. He would carefully make each frame – from the mundane to the eventful – all pieced together to form a chord in our recorded history. I often ponder the conversations he may have had with himself while making these photographs, turning down street corners, setting up his studio lights or even waiting inside the spacious living rooms of the elite as they readied for family portraits. Barnor’s work and dedication continue to influence me, and it is always an honour to learn from his decades of experience.
Nana Kofi Acquah, Photographer
For colonialism to work, to loot, enslave and impoverish the [African] continent without guilt, African people needed to be depicted as poor, inept, beastly and incapable of appreciating the vast natural resources at his disposal. The images James Barnor made of [Black] people, both at home and abroad, effectively disprove the diabolical colonial rhetoric, demonstrating Black communities in all their strength, beauty and relevance.
Barnor’s work is a rare diamond, especially because he was willing to break out of the studio and into the world with his camera. In that personal effort to make sense of all the changes happening around him, he preserved an authentic Ghanaian account of the birth of our nation and continent, in a voice that will always be “ever young.”
Nana Opoku, Digital Artist
There’s a story I wanted to talk about: I have a piece that I made called ‘Young Visonary’, and it directly references an old James Barnor photo that I found. I showed it to him during an event that you Bianca A. Manu put together, and his reaction was so refreshing. I was a bit nervous because he’s a legend, and I’d used work that was originally his. I kept wondering, what is he going to think? Is it going to be good enough? Is he going to berate me for using his work? He was pleasant, and we shared a laugh about it! Seeing his work, meeting him and getting to show him art that I made inspired by him was just special to me.
Nii Odzenma, Photographer (@nfoningraphy)
Mr. Barnor influenced me to continue photography and to look out for the things that are likely to change over time and document them.
I like to look at how places and people will change. I wonder how places will be different in the future and if I will have any pictorial representation of what they used to be.
Amarachi Nwosu, Filmmaker &Photographer, Founder of Melanin Unscripted
James Barnor is genuinely a pioneer and a revolutionary in so many ways. He is part of a community that allowed photographic storytelling to be a tool, pushing what is considered radical: everyday life in Africa without the white gaze. He also created a space for colour photography, and colour is such a vibrant and vital part of Africa. It represents our cultures in so many ways: it’s the colours in the food, it’s the colours in the clothes, it’s even just the colours in the variations of our skin tones. Barnor was able to capture that essence. I love how he documented women and allowed them to shine through in each image – it wasn’t evasive. A good documentarian can always translate the energy on set and reflect it in the picture. It’s about how comfortable the subject feels; I love that there’s so much imagery within his catalogue and vast intentionality in it. As a woman who is a visual storyteller, my legacy is also reflective of the people who came before me, such as Barnor, especially since colour is such an essential component of my work and culture. James Barnor is part of a lineage of photographers who created a space for me to consider documenting history in a unique light.
Carlos Idun-Tawiah, Photographer & filmmaker
I first learned about James Barnor’s work four or five years ago. I’d seen a couple of images on the internet that I loved of Muhammad Ali, Kwame Nkrumah and others. At the time, I didn’t know he took them. It was so satisfying to realise that all these images I was fond of were taken by Barnor. Throughout the years, he’s gained more press attention. I like how determined he is. I was shocked to learn he owned a studio at a young age. He was so dedicated. He captured the cultural framework through photos so well, and that, for me, is one of his greatest gifts as an artist.
I met him in 2020. Alara Lagos commissioned me to document the celebration of his exhibition at the Nubuke Foundation. When I was about to take the portrait, I hinted to him and Naomi [Campbell] to move towards the art gallery window, and that was the ice breaker. He was like, “We should get closer to the window… I see you know your light!” He advised me, along with other creatives (Joshua Kissi, Kenneth Ize, Lawrence Agyei, Leomie Anderson, etc.), at the occasion to stay committed to the craft and never hold back regardless of how tough things may look at a given time.
“He captured the essence of Ghana before and after independence. Without him, most of us today would have no idea what it was like back then: the people, the atmosphere, the fashion – just the whole zeitgeist of that era.”– Joseph Abbey-Mensah
Jessica Sarkodie, Photographer & Strategist
The biggest thing that stands out about James Barnor’s work for me is how heartwarming it is. It transports you to a place of nostalgia if you were there, and if you weren’t, the aura and energy are still almost palpable. It’s raw: not overly edited or overly staged. I try to do this in my images, to present things as they are, especially in a country like this one [Ghana], in a city like Accra where things are constantly changing and becoming more and more stratified; who knows when this building or that statue will be replaced? That’s the thing that sticks out about Barnor’s work to me and influences and inspires my work.
Prince Gyasi, Photographer & Digital Artist
James Barnor is a huge inspiration to me. Being the first Ghanaian artist to shoot and process an image in full colour influenced many artists after his generation to also communicate visually in colour. He has influenced many of us to turn thinking into doing and to confidently tell our narratives.
If you look at James Barnor’s work and how he documented Ghana, it was all positive. He never tried to paint a negative picture of his people. You always see this sense of beauty in his works which taught me that art pieces are not weapons of destruction but healing components.
Joseph Abbey-Mensah, Photographer & Art Director (@sarf_bort)
Certain aspects of Ghanaian history would be lost if not for James Banor. He captured the essence of Ghana before and after independence. Without him, most of us today would have no idea what it was like back then: the people, the atmosphere, the fashion – just the whole zeitgeist of that era. He captured the trajectory of the nation during a pivotal moment in history. You often hear stories of this time, but nothing validates a story like a photograph. Your mind paints its own pictures when you hear words, but having a visual representation adds more to your imagination.. Right now, if I wanted to imagine the era, my imagination would make up certain assumptions about the people from that time: how they looked, how they styled their hair, their clothing and much more. Barnor’s photos ensured that we weren’t being misrepresented; I find that really cool and utterly inspiring.
Daniel Obabsi, Photographer (@iamdanielobasi)
James Barnor’s work overtly impacts the present-day contemporary space, whether directly or indirectly. It is nostalgic and relatable. His photos remind me of images and style that I have seen in my family album photos. The simple yet graceful way his pictures come together to reinforce the ideals of Black beauty and excellence; there is a sense of pride within the subjects that pulls you in. My ultimate take away is the simplicity of his work and how it will inspire Black photographers and artists far and wide for ages to come.
Stephen Tayo, Photographer
James Barnor is a huge part of my practice as a photographer; his influence as an inspiration is very much ongoing. When I think about Barnor’s early photography, it was more about representation and what was available. Most of us [photographers] still reference his work. It is an honour to talk about someone as legendary as him.
“Barnor’s images capture the realism of everyday Ghanaian life, but his personal touch redefines them” – Sackitey Tesa
Grace Wales Bonner, Fashion Designer (@walesbonner)
James Barnor’s photography is uplifting and exuberant – his documentations of Black British style are eternal and powerful. James Barnor is such a vibrant and generous character, whose work and playful spirit continues to reverberate and inspire us all.
Silvia Rosi, Photographer (@slyrosi)
James Barnor has always been a significant influence for me because of his ability to be present and record history. As an Italian photographer of Togolaise descent, researching my identity between two continents is the primary focus of my practice. In the context of this research, Barnor’s work and my family photo albums act as compasses that guide me as I look at documentation of the Black experience during times of strong historical transition.
Sackitey Tesa, Photographer & Stylist (@sackiteytesa)
In his work, James Barnor represents community, bonding and realism. In my work, I naturally seem to incorporate the same subject matter through fashion statements that highlight social issues while depicting non-conformity in Ghanaian society. Barnor’s images capture the realism of everyday Ghanaian life, but his personal touch redefines them. Barnor’s approach to portraiture intrigues me a lot. I haven’t quite mastered the craft yet, but looking at Barnor’s work in retrospect, his tones, composition and analytical perspective give his portraits so much life. One day I hope also to have protégés with similar sentiments about my work.