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First solo museum exhibition of work by photographer Ernest Cole opens at NYU's Grey Art Gallery
Ernest Cole, No known caption (According to Struan Robertson, washing conditions at the mines were primitive. Shower rooms were crowded with men trying to bathe while others did their meager laundry.) Gelatin silver print, 8 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (22 x 32 cm) © The Ernest Cole Family Trust Courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.

NEW YORK, NY.- One of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, Ernest Cole (1940–1990) created powerful, devastating photographs that revealed to the world what it meant to be black under apartheid. Hard-hitting and incendiary—visually powerful yet subtle and even elegant—Cole’s works have received little attention since 1967, when his groundbreaking book, House of Bondage, was published. From September 3 to December 6, 2014, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery is hosting the first solo touring museum exhibition of 120 rare black-and-white gelatin silver prints from Cole’s stunning archive—now in the care of Gothenburg’s Hasselblad Foundation, which organized the show. Ernest Cole Photographerpresents Cole’s prints along with incisive captions, bearing stark witness to the wide spectrum of black people’s experiences as they negotiated their lives during a harrowing era in South Africa. To complement the exhibition catalogue, the Grey will publish a special edition
of the Grey Gazette.

Cole was born in the black freehold township of Eersterust, Pretoria. Later he and his family were forcibly relocated to the township of Mamelodi, in compliance with the Group Areas Act. Having taken up photography as a teenager, in 1958 he landed a position as a darkroom assistant at DRUM, a black lifestyle magazine in Johannesburg. There he mingled with young black South African photographers, journalists, jazz musicians, and community leaders in the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement. In the mid-1960s, inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s books, Cole embarked on his dangerous life mission to produce a volume that would awaken the rest of the world to apartheid’s corrosive effects. Published by Random House in New York, House of Bondage is a graphic and hard-hitting exposé of the racism and economic inequality underpinning the apartheid system. It was immediately banned in South Africa, but contraband copies played an important role in shaping the country’s emerging tradition of activist photography. As stated in the book, “Three hundred years of white supremacy in South Africa has placed us in bondage, stripped us of dignity, robbed us of self-esteem, and surrounded us with hate.”

In an essay for the Grey Gazette accompanying the exhibition, NYU professor Ulrich Baer observes: “The pernicious apartheid regime forced black South Africans to be constantly mindful of how whites regarded them, lest they suffer severe penalties for overstepping a written or unwritten rule. In order to witness this oppressive reality Cole had to step outside of the awareness of surveillance…. Cole had to see his subjects in ways not permitted in South Africa: as beautiful, as connected, as human, as alive…. House of Bondage shows the apartheid world within the world but also hints at a larger, yet unrealized world where black people could be seen, or choose not to be seen, on their own terms.”

Many of the works in Ernest Cole Photographer are displayed for the first time uncropped, as Cole originally intended. His mastery rests not only in his personal daring and desire to capture the extraordinary, but also in his skillful use of camera techniques. A singularly gifted storyteller, he deploys striking perspectives and framing to elicit emotional responses. In a bird’s-eye-view photograph taken outside Johannesburg station, Cole uses sharp camera angles to evoke the invasive process of checking identification, bearing the weight of his gaze down on the police officers—inspecting the inspectors. In another image, he harnesses the serialized image’s rhetorical power, offering an oblique view of a line of naked men awaiting medical inspection, drawing viewers’ eyes along the contours of each exposed body. In the background he shows us the clinic too full to care for its patients.

Often working clandestinely with a hidden camera, Cole photographed lines of migrant mineworkers waiting to be discharged from labor; parks and benches marked “Europeans Only”; young men arrested and handcuffed for entering cities without their passes; crowds crammed to the rafters in commuter trains. He also depicted a schoolchild studying by candlelight; worshippers in their Sunday best; and intimate moments of children at play, mothers smiling, couples dancing, and friends joking. In 1966, during his final months in South Africa, Cole spent time with a band of tsotsis (street gangsters), gaining their trust and dispassionately recording their activities. In one jarring series, we see them attack and rob a white passerby, stealing his weekly paycheck.

Arrested by the police, Cole was offered two options: join their ranks as an informer or be sent to prison. Cole quickly fled to Europe, taking with him little more than the layouts for his book. He spent the remaining 23 years of his life in painful exile, traveling between Sweden and the United States. Uprooted from his home and community and removed from the circumstances that had fired his creative imagination, he was unable to find his bearings. After settling in New York in 1975, he was often destitute, living on city streets and in the subways. In 1990, he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 49—one week after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, which Cole had cheered on television from his hospital bed.

“Ernest Cole’s life and work were dominated by the apartheid system. It was the theme of his most important photographic work, it was the reason for his going into exile and becoming a stateless, but recognized, stranger in the world,” notes Gunilla Knape, curator of the exhibition. “The story of Ernest Cole is very little known and this exhibition is an attempt to shed light on his life and work, and to make part of a large collection of his photographs available to a broad international audience, not the least in Cole’s native country.” “As a museum and a teaching institution, the Grey Art Gallery is mindful of the responsibility of showcasing Cole’s biting imagery and social commentary. He not only documented life in South Africa but pushed for radical change,” notes Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery. “Through his photographic celebrations of human resilience and critiques of institutionalized segregation, Cole challenged the status quo, and his work continues to speak loudly to contemporary issues of inequity and poverty in the United States and the world over.”

Were it not for Cole’s foresight in giving a collection of his prints to Tio Fotografer (a Swedish photographers’ association)—which later donated them to the Hasselblad Foundation—we would not have access to his original images today, for during his years of destitution nearly all his possessions were lost. Bringing this remarkable artist’s powerful works to the international stage, Ernest Cole Photographer commemorates his pioneering efforts to capture the complex truths of day-to-day, lived experience during a brutal era. Exposing the evils of apartheid in images captured at the front lines, the exhibition constitutes both a body of evidence and a moral reckoning.

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