Ernest Cole

[no title]


Not on display

Ernest Cole 1940 – 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 277 × 183 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2020


This is one of a group of twenty-one black and white photographs in Tate’s collection from the South African photographer Ernest Cole’s series House of Bondage 1965–6 (Tate P82526–46). The photographs, which were taken on 35mm film, are gelatin silver prints on paper and are all untitled. The works can be described as documentary in practice, each capturing an element of day-to-day life under the Apartheid regime in South Africa. There is a particular focus on the black community: from the long commutes from townships to cities, shown in the overcrowding of trains; to the harsh conditions in gold mines and related accommodation for miners; to understaffed and underfunded hospitals; the daily realities of pass raids; and the destruction of townships to make space for building expansion. In some works, Cole has photographed signs that depict the rules that separated different strands of society under Apartheid, with permits needed to enter specific locations, or only allowing entry into buildings via specific routes. Other images are more playful, depicting children cooling off with a water sprinkler or friendships between black and white South Africans. For the most part, the subjects in the images seem to be unaware that they are being photographed.

Born Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kople, Cole is considered one of the most significant documentary photographers in the history of photography as well as an important figure in capturing the reality of living under Apartheid. During his lifetime he was mainly published as a photojournalist, in South African publications such as Drum magazine, Golden City Post and New Age, and internationally in The Sunday Times and LIFE magazine. These particular photographs relate to his seminal photobook House of Bondage: A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today, which was first published in 1967. They were taken by Cole between 1965 and 1966 and printed at different times between c.1965 and 1975, sometimes for press usage. As works to be considered for publication, they have a narrative as well as artistic function. Each print is stamped, and the type of stamp indicates the potential usage for each print. Prints stamped Ernest Cole Magnum are in the majority printed on double weight paper and the lack of subsidiary stamps implies that they may have been made as exhibition prints. Prints stamped Ernest Cole and Tiofoto and occasionally Photograph by Ernest Cole: Distributed by Magnum would appear to have been used as press photos.

Although the photographs are all untitled, those included in the House of Bondage book were published alongside a short caption written by Cole and this caption can also be used to accompany the works when they are displayed in the gallery. For example, an image of three children begging is published in the book alongside the caption:

“Penny, baas, please, bass, I hungry …” This plaint is part of the nightly scene in the Golden City, as black boys beg from whites. They may be thrown a coin, or, as here, they may get slapped in the face.

Captioning the works in this way provides a concise description of what is happening in the photograph while also subverting the language of Apartheid that was often utilised in South Africa to normalise the segregation of peoples based on race. Here language is used as a tool alongside images to, literally, rewrite history. In the introduction to the 1968 edition of House of Bondage, editor Joseph Lelyveld described South Africa under Apartheid as ‘one of the least known countries in the world’ (Joseph Lelyveld, ‘Introduction’, in Cole 1968, unpaginated). Cole’s project, underscored by the descriptive title of his book, sought to raise awareness within the international community of the atrocities of the regime, bringing the realities of Apartheid into public visual consciousness.

Cole’s interest in photography crystallised during his time at Drum magazine in the late 1950s, when he enrolled on a long-distance learning course with the New York Institute of Photography and decided to specialise in photojournalism. This was also when he was introduced to the work of the Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004). Cole noted that Cartier-Bresson’s book People of Moscow (1955) was a particular inspiration that ‘inspired me to do my own book and slowly I started shooting seriously with an eye towards the book that I wanted to do’ (Ernest Cole, quoted in Hasselblad Foundation 2010, p.5). Just as Cartier-Bresson’s book recorded the daily life of the population of Moscow, so too would Cole attempt to capture the daily life of South Africa. His photographs also show an interest in Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, combining the significance of a momentary event with a deliberate interest in form.

House of Bondage would prove to be Cole’s most significant and lasting work. The book was published in New York in 1967 and a year later in London, but was immediately banned in South Africa. After leaving South Africa in 1966 Cole would not return, for fear of arrest, travelling to the United Kingdom, United States and Sweden. Although he was hired in New York by the Ford Foundation to take photographs for a planned book titled A study of the Negro family in the rural South and the Negro family in the urban ghetto, this was never fully realised.

As well as providing a wider record of life for Black people under Apartheid, Cole’s photographs bear witness to his own experience of living and working under continued state oppression. In an attempt to gain more freedom, Cole managed to have his racial classification changed from ‘Black’ to ‘Coloured’, tricking the Race Classification Board. This meant that he did not need to carry a pass signed by a white employer, allowing him (in principle) to travel freely. Many of his photographs were taken under risk of arrest, whilst others were taken covertly, with Cole smuggling his camera into areas where photography was banned, such as hospitals and mines. Historian Gunilla Knape has noted:

the essential humanity of Cole’s artistic vision is given through the relation that the photographer has with his subject matter; this is photography executed in the midst of, from the inside; it is felt as powerfully as it is seen. The way that Cole approaches his subject matter in photographs like these serves to elide the distinctions between the subject (initially the photographer, but empathetically, also the viewer) and the object (what is being photographed), to virtually propel the viewer into the photograph.
(Gunilla Knape, ‘Introduction’, in Hasselblad Foundation 2010, p.44.)

Further reading
Ernest Cole, House of Bondage, New York 1967.
Ernest Cole, House of Bondage, London 1968.
Gunilla Knape (ed.), Struan Robertson, Ivor Powell, Ernest Cole Photographer, exhibition catalogue, Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg 2010.

Emma Jones
August 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like

In the shop