By Rosemary Eng
Ernest Cole had an artistic eye for the heartbreak of inhumanity.
One of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, Cole was also one of South Africa’s most famous black photographers for his deeply emotional and compassionate documentation of life under apartheid.
The 125 gelatin silver prints of his work that were displayed until December 6 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in Greenwich Village are now back at the Hasselblad Foundation in Sweden, where Cole’s photographs are housed.
Cole’s work was exhibited in 2013 at the Fowler Museum, University of California at Los Angeles, and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, (SFMOMA), sparking discussions in those cities about race and repression as well as the about the remarkable courage of Cole, so moved by what he saw happening to black South Africans that he risked arrest and eventual banishment trying to share with the world what he was seeing.
But it wasn’t until the collection reached New York City this fall that the show struck a raw nerve in media and the art community as they rediscovered Cole’s work in America.
It could be because Cole had multi-layered ties with New York City. It could be because Ferguson and St. Louis is sitting uncomfortably in the public mind.
Cole was born Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole in 1940 in a black freehold township near Pretoria.
According to various stories, when he was young he was given a camera by a priest who knew his family, and he became fascinated with photography. It also was said that he worked as an assistant to a Chinese studio photographer, acquired an old Yashika twin lens reflex camera and developed his photographic skills.
Cole became so enamoured with photography that he took a correspondence course through the New York Institute of Photography.
He worked for South Africa’s Drum Magazine, where he met young black South African photographers, journalists, jazz musicians, and community leaders caught up in the swelling anti-apartheid movement.
An admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the renowned photojournalist who combined the artistic sense of composition with capturing decisive moments in history, Cole managed to surreptitiously wend his way through black South African society trying to do the same. But to take his forbidden pictures he had to hide his camera in a lunch bag.
Cole was working to publish his photos in a book, House of Bondage: A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today. The book was banned in South Africa but eventually published by Random House, New York, in 1967.
White South Africa did not want the world’s eyes on what was happening within the country. Former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld was South African correspondent when he was expelled in 1966 by the South African white government. Upon leaving, Lelyveld was entrusted by Cole to carry contact sheets of the apartheid photos out of the country.
Once his project was known, Cole had to leave South Africa and was banned from returning.
He lived alternately in Europe, mostly in Scandinavia, and in New York. In the United States he started a project of documenting African Americans but was disillusioned with the racism he saw.
Living in exile, Cole never quite re-established himself as a photographer. He ended up sick and out of money, reportedly sleeping on subways. Finally he contacted Lelyveld who helped Cole to be admitted to a hospital where the photographer died at age 49 in New York of pancreatic cancer. He died
a week after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. Cole’s final return home was when his ashes were taken back to South Africa by his sister.
Cole would have been 74 today. His work has been exhibited in South Africa, in Scandinavia and in the United States. Beyond the exhibitions, all that white South Africa was trying to hide and which Cole worked so hard to expose is available for all the world to see. His book, House of Bondage, is for sale on rare book sites. And of course, there is the Internet.
A commentary on Cole’s photographs by Ulrich Baer, Professor of German and Comparative Literature, and Vice Provost for Faculty, Arts, Humanities, and Diversity, New York University, can be read here.