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Ernest Cole - Handcuffed Men

Living in Image Oblivion

by Sean O'Toole / 30.09.2010

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 – “Why do Hugo and Subotzky and countless other white portrait photographers have to take pictures of black people to gain relevance/comment socially/be successful in the art world?” asked a Mahala reader in November last year – 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.

Ernest Cole
Police Swoop, Ernest Cole.

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.

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.

Ernest Cole - Mine Recruitment
Mine Recruitment, Ernest Cole.

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 Schadeberg. Peter Magubane, that great chronicler of black life since the 1950s, was a contemporary.

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.

Published 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.

Ernest Cole - Riverside
Riverside, Ernest Cole.

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.

Ernest Cole - Train Station
Train Station, Ernest Cole

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