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Ernest Cole, Photographer

Ernest Cole at Johannesburg Art Gallery

By Portia Malatjie
02 October - 21 November. 0 Comment(s)
Earnest boy squats on haunches and strains to follow lesson in heat of packed classroom.

Ernest Cole
Earnest boy squats on haunches and strains to follow lesson in heat of packed classroom. , c. 1966. silver gelatin print (caption: House of Bondage), copyright: The Ernest Cole Family Trust .

Years after the fall of apartheid, Ernest Cole’s work finally reaches the eyes of South African citizens. This is ironic considering that Cole’s work was intended to be shown to his contemporary public in an attempt to expose the ills of the apartheid era. His book, House of Bondage (1967) was published while Cole was in exile to raise awareness about the manner in which the apartheid government (scarcely) maintained spaces designed for black people. In a neatly curated show consisting of more than a hundred photographs in three exhibition rooms of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the exhibition 'Ernest Cole, Photographer' tells a story of apartheid, a story that some might feel has been told too many times before. A sympathetic accompanying documentary by Rune Hassner orientates the viewer towards Cole’s sad, unknown life.

The exhibition, which is scheduled to tour to other venues internationally, is on show in South Africa first, in honour of Cole and his family. This body of work has never before been seen internationally or locally. The works on show consist of photographs donated to the Hasselblad Foundation, following Cole’s stay in Sweden in the 1980s, where he lived with another photographer who, in turn, became the custodian of Cole’s work after his death in 1990. The location of most of the negatives of Cole’s earlier work, including the works in House of Bondage, is still unknown.

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Unsurprisingly, Cole was not able to publish House of Bondage in South Africa. Most local newspapers rarely purchased his often controversial photographs. Forced into exile in 1966, he eventually landed in New York where he published the book a year later. His South African countrymen and women could still not view his images as the book was banned in the country. Cole died in exile in 1990, the year Mandela was released, without having returned to the country since he first left.

House of Bondage was produced after Cole saw a photographic book by Henri Cartier-Bresson, People of Moscow. Following this insight into what could be done with photography, Cole decided to photograph the people of South Africa. Although schooled in photojournalism, Cole’s was not the news photography of Peter Magubane or Struan Robertson. He penetrated spaces that had never been traversed by photojournalists, aiming for a perfect image that could tell the story that he wanted told. Unlike news photographers, he was not working towards an immediate deadline; this would have limited the time he needed to return to the places where heinitially might have been unable to get his perfect image. With his understanding of photojournalistic composition, emotive lighting, and almost voyeuristic insight, it is amazing that Cole was almost entirely self-taught as a photographer. A family friend loaned him his first camera indefinitely, and shortly thereafter he enrolled for a correspondence course in photojournalism through the New York Institute of Photography. Thereafter he improved his skills during aninternship at the Drum magazine under the watchful eye of Jügen Schaderberg.

Cole’s incriminating images revealed some of the brutal ways in which the apartheid government treated black people in South Africa. Among his subject matter were the foul conditions of black hospitals, the effects of the dumbed down Bantu education system, the crammed, almost inhumane living conditions of black miners, and the invisibility and solitude of black domestic workers.

He often flirted with danger in order to get the shot that he desired. One such risk was changing his own identity. When the aspirant photographer reached the age at which he was required by law to carry a dompas - the proscribing document that all black people had to carry from a certain age - Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole morphed into Ernest Cole. In one stroke, he had changed, according to apartheid classification, from black to coloured, a change which never quite convinced some police in the Special Branch. To make his metamorphosis more credible, he straightened his kinky hair, adopted a coloured accent, and learnt fluent Afrikaans. In so doing, Cole could gain more access and reach more places with relatively little difficulty, something that would have been impossible as an African.

Some of the risks that Cole took were daring, and at times humorous. In order to photograph their activities, he befriended a gang of tsotsis and followed them around when they were robbing passerbys off their Friday wages. A selection of these images are included on the exhibition Ernest Cole, Photographer. His association with the gang eventually forced him into exile; he was arrested along with the gang and had either to expose their activities to save himself, or leave the country to honour his word of confidentiality.

Following a scooter accident that broke both his knee caps, Cole was admitted to a black hospital, where he was appalled by the desperate conditions. He recruited a friend, Geoff Mphakati, as his assistant, hid his camera under his jacket, and managed to photograph the inhumane conditions at the HF Verwoerd Hospital. These photographs are represented in the exhibition in a stirring series that shows a children’s ward where new admissions are identified with masking tape on the forehead, and another makeshift ward where neglected patients lie on mattresses that seem daubed with blood and other bodily fluids left by previous occupants. Most patients were unattended on arrival, whileothers were lucky (or sick) enough to be placed on beds. Others were left to lie on the balconyor on the floor under beds.

Cole’s photographic vision was not all gloomy though. Among the many disturbing images on the exhibition, a little light forces its way through; these moments are, however, rare in the exhibition. Cole captures miners entertaining each other in the mining compounds with traditional dances. They seem happy and carefree. Their audience consists of black and white people who sit in separate seating blocks reserved for the difference racial groups. In another series of pictures, taken in the mixed-race enclave of Riverside, one sees a few white men in the company of some black women as they intimately dance with each other. One cannot help but fear for the subjects: what would happen to them if they were to get caught? It is interesting to compare the obvious racial divisions of the era in which Cole worked and those of contemporary South Africa. Although segregation is no longer institutionalised, black and white South Africans still live mainly in isolation from each other. Black people’s neighbourhoods are still predominantly poorer than white dominated suburbs. Many black people still ride trains long distances to and from work as they did during apartheid - they leave home in the dark and return in the dark. Domestic work is still a field mainly occupied by black women who can barely make ends meet with their monthly salaries. Partly because of the pervasiveness of these situations 'Ernest Cole, Photographer' is not an exhibition for the faint-hearted. While the photographs are testament to the results of Cole’s hard work, perseverance and remarkable skill, their subject matters are frequently enough to invite a lump to one’s throat. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue subsidised by the Hasselblad Foundation, worthwhile if only for Cole’s photographs rather than for the fairly repetitive essays by Gunilla Knape, Struan Robertson and Ivor Powell.