Homecoming for stark record of apartheid

Ernest Cole, a photographer, created a moving pictorial record of what it was like to be a black in apartheid South Africa. The largest retrospective of his work, once banned, is now on display in Johannesburg.

November 18, 2010 10:06 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:45 pm IST

Cole's undated photograph show passengers jumping across the tracks,  having to guess unmarked trains designated for blacks. Photo: Ernest Family Cole Trust/Hassleblad Foundation Collection

Cole's undated photograph show passengers jumping across the tracks, having to guess unmarked trains designated for blacks. Photo: Ernest Family Cole Trust/Hassleblad Foundation Collection

When he was only in his 20s Ernest Cole, a black photographer who stood barely five feet tall, created one of the most harrowing pictorial records of what it was like to be black in apartheid South Africa. He went into exile in 1966, and the next year his work was published in the United States in a book, “House of Bondage,” but his photographs were banned in his homeland where he and his work have remained little known.

In exile Mr. Cole's life crumbled. For much of the late 1970s and 1980s he was homeless in New York, bereft of even his cameras. “His life had become a shadow,” a friend later said. Mr. Cole died at 49 in 1990, just a week after Nelson Mandela walked free. His sister flew back to South Africa with his ashes on her lap.

Images that shock

Mr. Cole is at last having another kind of homecoming. The largest retrospective of his work ever mounted is now on display at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, built in the neo-Classical style almost a century ago in an era when South Africa's great mining fortunes were being made on the backs of black labour. It is a collection of images that still possesses the power to shock and anger.

“How could white people do this to us?” asked Lebogang Malebana, 14, as he stood before a photograph of nude gold-mine recruits who had been herded into a grimy room for examination. “How could they put naked black men on display like that?”

Mr. Cole conceived the idea of his own portrait of black life after seeing Henri Cartier-Bresson's book “People of Moscow.” He got this particular picture by sneaking his camera into the mine in his lunch bag, under sandwiches and an apple, Struan Robertson, who shared a studio and darkroom with Mr. Cole, recounted in an essay for the book that accompanies the exhibition, “Ernest Cole: Photographer.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the museum in Johannesburg in a crime-ridden downtown that long ago emptied of white people, three visitors wandered through cavernous galleries lined with Mr. Cole's work. Lebogang, an eighth-grader, had drifted in from a nearby single-room apartment that he shares with his mother, who is a maid, and his younger brother. His father is in jail. “It's very sad,” he said as he lingered over the black-and-white images.

Jimmy Phindi Tjege, 27, who like many young black South Africans has never held a job in a society still scarred by apartheid, had come to the exhibition with his friend, Nomthandazo Patience Chazo, 26, who works for the government and has a car. They had driven from their black township, Daveyton, about 30 miles away.

Ms Chazo was struck by a photograph of four hungry children scraping porridge from a single pot set on a concrete floor. Mr. Tjege singled out another picture, one of a serious boy squatting on the floor of an unfurnished schoolroom, clutching a chalkboard, with two tears of sweat running down the side of his face.

“I feel angry,” Mr. Tjege said, as he gestured to the rest of the gallery with a sweep of his hand. “This room is full of anger.”

Mr. Cole's captions and photographs are imbued with wrenching emotions.

Next to a photograph of a maid holding a white baby girl whose lips are pressed to the woman's forehead, the caption says: “Servants are not forbidden to love. Woman holding child said, ‘I love this child, though she'll grow up to treat me just like her mother does.'”

The caption for a picture of a hospital ward where the floor was crowded with sick children reads, “New cases have their names written on adhesive tape stuck to their foreheads.”

A series of images of tsotsis, young black gangsters, picking the pockets of white men is accompanied by a caption that reads: “Whites are angered if touched by anyone black, but a black hand under the chin is enraging. This man, distracted by his fury, does not realise his pocket is being rifled.”

Cole's life

The son of a washerwoman and a tailor, Mr. Cole quit high school in 1957 at 16 as the Bantu education law meant to consign blacks to menial labour went into effect.

When he was 20, the apartheid authorities deemed his family's brick home and the black township where it sat as a “black spot” and bulldozed them into rubble.

Somehow, pretending to be an orphan, Mr. Cole had by then already managed to persuade apartheid bureaucrats to reclassify him as coloured, or mixed race, despite his dark skin. His fluency in Afrikaans, the language of most coloureds, probably helped. His ability to pass as coloured freed him from laws that required blacks always to carry a work permit when in “white areas,” and this mobility proved crucial to his photography. Joseph Lelyveld, a retired executive editor of The New York Times who was the Times' correspondent in Johannesburg in the mid-1960s and worked with Mr. Cole, then a freelancer, described the young photographer as a wry, soft-spoken man.

“His judgments could be angry, but he had an ironic, almost furtive nature, conditioned by what he was trying to pull off,” Mr. Lelyveld, who remained a friend of Mr. Cole until his death, said in a telephone interview. “It wasn't easy to be a black man walking around Johannesburg with expensive cameras. The presumption would be you stole them.”

In the mid-1970s, when Mr. Cole was destitute and homeless in New York, Mr. Lelyveld said they went together to a cheap hotel where Mr. Cole had left his negatives and the photographs he had of his mother, only to discover they had gone to an auction of unclaimed items.

His prints

For years rumours circulated that a suitcase of Mr. Cole's prints had survived somewhere in Sweden. David Goldblatt, a renowned South African photographer, had heard they were with the Hasselblad Foundation there. When Mr. Goldblatt received the Hasselblad Award in 2006, and travelled to Gothenburg to accept it, he asked to see them. He said he was agape paging through the images, saying, “They can't lie in a vault.”

Later, when he carefully studied scans of them at his home in Johannesburg, Mr. Goldblatt, now 80, said he began to realise that many of the photographs in “House of Bondage” had been cropped severely to enhance their impact in a powerful anti-apartheid polemic. But the full frames showed Cole's artistry.

“He wasn't just brave,” said Mr. Goldblatt, who has been photographing South Africa for more than a half-century. “He wasn't just enterprising. He was a supremely fine photographer.”For example, the picture of naked mine recruits photographed in a line from behind, their arms outstretched as if they were being held up, had a water basin on the wall at the end of the line. It was almost entirely cut out in the book.

“Cole was careful to include the basin, and the basin is like the full stop or exclamation mark in a sentence,” Goldblatt said. “It just brings another dimension. It makes it banal. It's not just dramatic, it's banally dramatic. This is the kind of thing photographers live by, these details.”

Next year the exhibition, organised by the Hasselblad Foundation, will travel to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Mamelodi, the black township outside Pretoria where Mr. Cole's family still lives. The foundation is now planning a U.S. tour that probably will include San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta and New York.— © New York Times News Service

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