Ernest Cole: The powers that beat — apartheid from the inside

The Times

September 13, 2012


In Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage, a book of photographs that won him international recognition in the late 1960s, the captions are as piercing as his pictures of black life under apartheid in South Africa. The book was published in the US in 1967, a year after Cole, South Africa’s first black freelance photographer, had left the country and gone into exile; the book was banned in his homeland.

A woman looking at a boy is described thus: “Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: ‘What’s your future going to be like without an education?’ But it is too late; the boy — called Papa — is out of control.” A photograph of a black female servant holding a white child is captioned: “Woman holding child said: ‘I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does. Now she is innocent’.”

Many of the House of Bondage pictures were first published in newspapers in which Cole, who died aged 49 in New York in 1990, built a career cut short. Homelessness and destitution engulfed him. His career fizzled out and his pictures were forgotten until recently. After an exhibition of his work was mounted in various South African cities in 2010 and 2011, a collection of previously unseen photographs by Coles is included in the Barbican show, Everything Was Moving, which opens today.

Other pictures include those of gold-miners suffering from the lung-debilitating disease phthisis; of black students on their knees re-smearing their classroom floor with cow-dung, “so that it is not too dusty on Sunday when the shack is used for church services”; of segregated railway-station platforms where trains allotted to blacks were fewer in number than those for whites and had no destinations on the front. Illustrating a 1966 Sunday Times story there are pictures of a line of naked gold-miners awaiting a medical examination and bands of tsotsis — young thugs — pickpocketing white people. There are pictures of benches in Johannesburg reserved for whites, of police detaining black youngsters. There are also happier moments: children playing in water jets on a hot day, a woman listening to the radio in the sunshine, a happy picnic.

Cole was born in a black township, Eersterust, outside Pretoria, and lived mainly with his aunt. His parents (his father was a tailor, his mother a washer-woman) “didn’t think it was a good thing” for him to be exposed to urban township life, Cole later wrote. He wanted to become a doctor but at 15 rejoined his parents and a friend of his mother’s gave him his first camera, “one of those early Voigtländers”.

He took a correspondence course in photography, determined to avoid the menial labour into which the system funnelled young black men. Pretending to be an orphan, Cole persuaded the authorities to reclassify him as “Coloured” (mixed race), exempting him from laws that required blacks to carry a work permit in “white” areas. In 1958, Jürgen Schadeberg, the picture editor of the radical magazine Drum, took him on to work in the darkroom. “He was shy, trustworthy and small (only 5ft),” Schadeberg remembers. He was charismatic but not clubbable and judged other photographers harshly if he deemed their work mediocre: “He had no desire to be known (in the language of the time) as a ‘good native photographer’,” his friend Struan Robertson wrote of Cole. “He wanted to be known as a good photographer, period.”

After leaving Drum in 1960, Cole became chief photographer on a weekly newspaper and went freelance, which was “very hard”, he wrote. “Editors nagged me to join their staff but we could never agree a price.” His work was published in the UK in the Sunday Express and The Sunday Times. But an accident on his Vespa in 1963 “crushed both my kneecaps . . . I never recovered completely”.

His distressing hospitalisation — beginning with his delayed pick-up by ambulance and going on to to substandard care in Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto — led to Cole returning to the hospital to take a searing set of portraits of patients.

Cole’s work was deemed too controversial: he worked on House of Bondage, knowing it would not be published in South Africa. He left the country “with the hope it would someday see the light of day”.

That Cole is now receiving renewed recognition is in no small part due to Gunilla Knape, a research consultant with the Gothenburg-based Hasselblad Foundation, which had received many of his prints after Cole lived in the city from 1969 to 1975. Knape calls him “a restless soul in a restless body”, and she should know, having attempted to document his movements. “There will always be mystery around Ernest,” Knape says. In New York he was homeless for periods, although friends such as Joseph Lelyveld, a former journalist with The New York Times, would give him money and house him occasionally. Life magazine commissioned Cole to photograph black life in the American South, but didn’t use his pictures, says Lelyveld. Cole also took photographs of the homeless living around him.

In1977,while staying in a“flea-pit dosshouse” in New York, the Pickwick Arms Hotel, Cole ran out of money and was evicted, leaving behind a suitcase containing all of his negatives and pictures of his family, including the only picture of his mother. When he returned to pick it up it had been disposed of. “Ernest still had zeal and purpose, but he thought we were a deranged city,” recalls Lelyveld, who first met Cole in South Africa. “He said nobody noticed the stars, sunrise and sunset, so he would bear witness to those on behalf of everyone else.” That sounds a little mad. “Maybe he was bipolar or terribly homesick,” Lelyveld says. In late 1989 Cole was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. From his hospital bed, Cole watched Nelson Mandela being released from jail. Eight days later he died. His mother and sister took his ashes back to South Africa. In his family home in Mamelodi, the township adjoining Eersterust where Cole had once lived with his parents, are some of his prints and a darkroom. His grave in Mamelodi’s cemetery bears the inscription: “Cole, Photographer.”

In New York, the Pickwick Arms has become a budget hotel called The Pod. A manager there pleaded he was “6 in 1977” and had no idea what would have become of the missing suitcase. Knape remains hopeful: “I’m sure it’s still around and we’ll find it.” Whether it’s found or not, much in the life of Ernest Cole will remain a mystery.