Ernest Cole: against image oblivion

Ernest Cole’s black and white photographs from the 1950s and 1960s record, as he once put it, the “extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black”. By Sean O’Toole

Handcuffed MenJOHANNESBURG — The 1950
launch issue of South African Photogems
of the Year, an A5 softcover volume of half-tone black and white
photography, included a brief, two-page article that affirms the value and
place of photographer Ernest Cole’s unapologetic reportage on black urban life
in apartheid South Africa.

Titled ‘The
Appeal of Africa’s Native People’, author Ray MacQuarrie Beggs, a Durban-based
photo enthusiast, discusses “the fascination which photographers and artists
find in depicting native studies on canvas and film”. The author’s forthright
conclusion, which is not without contemporary relevance, is worth quoting in full.

“Not
altogether for prosperity, I venture,” writes MacQuarrie Beggs, “but in earnest
endeavour to recapture the spirit of Africa, and interpret the Bantu pattern of
life, so strongly interwoven with strange rituals and quaint customs.”

In 1950 this
sort of racist quackery was neither quaint nor controversial; rather, it
typified the prevailing orthodoxy — not just ideologically, but
photographically too. It could be argued that the African independence
struggles of the last century, which culminated in South Africa’s transition to
a non-racial democracy in 1994, were not singularly battles waged over
territorial space. There were other, intangible things at stake too.

Having long
been catalogued, quantified and archived by successive generations of visiting
(mostly white) photographers, independence allowed Africans the possibility to
finally claim autonomy over their self-image. In South Africa, the white
photographers weren’t visitors, but this didn’t change the way many were
inclined to think of their black subjects, as fantastical props.

Take the work
of Irish-born Alfred
Martin Duggan-Cronin, the best examples of which are archived in his
eleven-section, four-volume publication, The
Bantu Tribes of South Africa (1928-1954). Like Roger Ballen many decades
later, Duggan-Cronin was an expatriate, his career in photography prefaced by a
stint working in the country’s mining industry (as a compound guard in
Kimberly). He acquired his first camera in 1904, at age 30. Fifteen years
later, with the backing from Kimberly’s McGregor Museum and the Carnegie
Institute, Duggan-Cronin began work on an ambitious project to document the indigenous
population of southern Africa.
Mine Recruition

The
project kept him busy for 25 years and yielded some 6000 photographs, many of
them portraits. The ethnographic scope of his project is clear in the design
treatment given his project, which is the same across all the bound volumes.
Take, for example, the Zulu section. Each photograph is presented at right, the
photographic plates separated by semi-transparent captioned interleaves. “Zulu
Woman” reads one caption header, the vague outline of the sitter visible underneath.
A brief annotation further illuminates the hazy picture, to which one
eventually turns: “Note the strings of beads which she uses as ear-rings, also
the necklace of charms.” That’s it.
Police Swoop

South
Africa’s first black freelance journalist, Cole detonated the myth that black
life in this country was a rural idyll marked by ancient customs. Born in
Pretoria, he initially apprenticed with a Chinese photographer, later hustling
work at Drum, where he worked under Jurgen Scadeberg. Peter Magubane, that great
chronicler of black life since the 1950s, was a contemporary.
Train Station
Frustrated
by the limitations faced as a black photographer working in an urban context —
remember, this is the period of the dompas
— Cole played white authorities at their own game and was reclassified
coloured. This enabled him to move more freely and make pictures; it also
enabled him to travel abroad. This is important. Cole worked before email
attachments and online image libraries made the dissemination of images fast
and uncomplicated. The best way to encapsulate the status quo then is in two
words: image oblivion. Cole had to go overseas.

RiversidePublished in
the United States in 1967, Cole’s only book, House of Bondage, offers readers a visual journey through the
multiple degradations of high apartheid and records in pictures what Cole
describes in his introduction as the “extraordinary experience to live as
though life were a punishment for being black”. Unsurprisingly, the book was
banned in South Africa.

Drawing on
his experiences as a layout artist at Drum,
Cole’s shaped a book that functions as series of thematic photo essays. The
opening essay is striking. It shows “pensive tribesmen” decked out in
threadbare contemporary fashion being assimilated into the country’s mining
system. A full-bleed image of these young men stood naked, hands in the air,
ready for a medical inspection, detonates the ‘naked native’ trope in African
photography. It rightly forms a centrepiece of the Apartheid Museum’s visual
display.

Although
banned from circulation in South Africa, House
of Bondage is the obvious precursor to such bleak, unsentimental books as
Peter Magubane’s Soweto (1978), Omar
Badsha’s Letter to Farzanah (1979),
Paul Alberts’ The Borders of Apartheid (1983)
and David Goldblatt’s Lifetimes: Under
Apartheid (1986), a collaboration with author Nadine Gordimer.

Unlike
Magubane, Badsha or Goldblatt, Cole, who died in exile in New York in 1990, has
remained somewhat out of the public eye. He isn’t well known. A new exhibition
devoted to this pioneering photojournalist, currently on show at the
Johannesburg Art Gallery, until November 21, aims to remedy this. Don’t miss
it.
School Class
All photographs are undated and courtesy of Johanesburg Art Gallery.