Ernest Cole (1940–90), one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, passionately pursued his mission to tell the world what it was like to be black under apartheid. With imaginative daring, courage and compassion, he portrayed the lives of black people as they negotiated apartheid’s racist laws and oppression. Ernest Cole Photographer―on view at the Fowler Museum from April 7–July 7, 2013―brings 125 original, extremely rare black-and-white silver gelatin prints from Cole’s stunning archive to the United States for the first time.
Inspired by the photo-essays of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cole documented scenes of life during apartheid from 1958–66. He captured everyday images such as lines of migrant mineworkers waiting to be discharged from labor, a schoolchild studying by candlelight, parks and benches for “Europeans Only,” young men arrested and handcuffed for entering cities without their passes, worshippers in their Sunday best, and crowds crammed into claustrophobic commuter trains. Together with Cole’s own incisive and illuminating captions, these striking photographs bear stark witness to a wide spectrum of experiences during the apartheid era.
Ernest Cole Photographer is the first major public presentation of Cole’s work since the publication of his book, House of Bondage, in 1967. A large majority of the images are shown for the first time in the way Cole had originally intended—uncropped and accompanied only by his minimal remarks. These images of apartheid are astonishing not only for their content but also their formal beauty and narrative power.
This exhibition comes at a time of renewed interest in apartheid-era photographs demonstrated by major U.S. exhibitions including South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk presently on view at SF MOMA and Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, which recently closed at the International Center of Photography. Concurrently with Ernest Cole Photographer the Fowler will also display a selection of art and election ephemera from Nelson Mandela’s successful bid for president of South Africa in 1994. Fowler in Focus―Mandela for President: South Africa Votes for Democracy will be on display April 7–July 21, 2013.
About the Artist
Ernest Cole was born March 21, 1940, in the black freehold township Eersterust, east of Pretoria. The son of a tailor and a laundry woman, Cole grew up in the countryside where he stayed with an aunt. For high school, he re-joined his parents in the township where he was born. He became interested in photography as a teen, and landed a position in Johannesburg as a darkroom assistant at DRUM magazine in 1958. There he began to mingle with other talented young black South Africans—journalists, photographers, jazz musicians, and political leaders in the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement—and became impassioned in his political views.
In the mid-1960s Cole set out at great personal risk to produce a book that would communicate to the rest of the world the corrosive effects of South Africa’s apartheid system. Working in areas continually patrolled by police forced Cole to become covert in his approach: he smuggled his camera into prisons and mines inside a lunch bag, used a long lense to photograph from a distance, and even fooled the apartheid bureaucracy into reclassifying his racial identity as “colored,” or mixed race, thus providing more freedom to move around towns and cities.
In 1966 Cole was arrested along with a group of petty thieves whom he had befriended in order to document their lives and means of survival. The police discovered Cole’s fraudulent identity and offered him two options: join their ranks as an informer, or be punished for fraud. Cole quickly left South Africa for Europe and took with him little more than the layouts for his book. His photographs and negatives were separately smuggled out of the country shortly after.
Cole’s project was realized in 1967 when Random House in New York published House of Bondage, a graphic and hard-hitting exposé of the racism and economic inequalities that underpinned apartheid. Although House of Bondage was banned in South Africa, contraband copies circulated and played an important role in shaping South Africa’s tradition of activist photography that emerged in the succeeding decades.
Uprooted from his home and community and divorced from the circumstances that had fired his creative imagination, Cole never found his feet in Europe or America. He died homeless in New York in 1990 after more than twenty-three years of painful exile, never having returned to South Africa and leaving no known negatives and few photographic prints.
Tio fotografer, an association of Swedish photographers with whom Cole had worked when he lived for a short time in Stockholm, received a collection of Cole’s work that was later donated to the Hasselblad Foundation. In 2006 eminent South African artist David Goldblatt received a major award from the Hasselblad Foundation and urged them to make their Ernest Cole collection accessible through a book and an exhibition.
Ernest Cole Photographer is an exhibition from The Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden. After its U.S. debut at the Fowler Museum, the exhibition will appear at the Preus Museum in Horten, Norway in the spring of 2014 and at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU in New York City in the fall of 2014.
Generous support comes from the Barbara and Joseph Goldenberg Fund, Brenda R. Potter, and the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. Public and family programs are made possible by the UCLA Dream Fund. Hotel sponsor: Hotel Angeleno.