South Africa, Life, etc

Photographer Ernest Cole: Of bondage and freedom – Discovery of trove of negatives a game changer

By Ivor Powell 30 November 2017

By the age of 25, when Ernest Cole fled South Africa for exile in New York, he had already cut the template for the way the experience of apartheid would be narrated for decades to come. When he died in New York, just less than 25 years later he was homeless and his entire archive was believed lost forever - including the negatives for the photo-essays collected in his book, The House of Bondage. But now a whopping 60,000 negatives have been found in a bank vault in Sweden, 14,000 of them from Coles South African years and a startling 46,000 from the photographer's unhappy exile mainly in the USA. IVOR POWELL looks at some of the ways the discovery feeds into our understanding of an extraordinary and enigmatic figure.

When the Swedish Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB (SEB Bank) delivered an archival hoard of some 60,000 negatives apparently discovered in its vaults to the family of the late South African photographer Ernest Cole at mid-year, some sceptical eyebrows might have arched. The trove’s coming to light coincided with legal inquiries instituted – by court order – into the fate of photographic heritage resources believed by Cole’s heirs to have been entrusted to figures associated with the photographic establishment of Sweden: notably the Hasselblad Foundation and the Tiofoto collective.

Handing over two safety deposit boxes in which the 60,000 negatives were discovered, along with a suitcase of clippings, notes and other reference materials, SEB’s representatives first invoked client confidentiality in refusing to divulge in whose name(s) the safety deposit had been held. When more questions were asked, the bank claimed – unusually for an institution so bureaucratically constrained by unbending processes of record and bureaucratic procedures – that the relevant documentation that would have revealed the identity of the client could simply not be found.

This may not be the end of it. Even after the handing over of the negatives, there is ongoing contestation between the Cole Family Trust and the Swedish photographic mandarins over some 500 so-called vintage prints (early prints made by the photographer) which Hasselblad representatives claim they bought from Cole, though they are unable to produce documentation to this effect.

But though these – and the millions they could be worth at auction – remain in a legal limbo, it is the discovery of the negatives that is the game-changer. Until SEB came forward with the hoard, it was generally believed that hardly any of Cole’s negatives had survived the more than two decades of rootlessness, hard living and progressively deeper spiritual malaise that followed the photographer’s flight, aged 25, from South Africa in 1966.

But even without the archive, just how bright Cole’s star has come to burn in the intervening years can be indexed in the fact that the when the curators of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg came to mount a permanent exhibit on Life Under Apartheid, they did it in the form of a series of reproductions from The House of Bondage, the only book of his photographs published in his lifetime.

According to Cole’s friend and patron, Joseph Lelyveld, – in the 1960s the New York Times South Africa correspondent, but later that newspaper’s Executive Editor, what had happened was this. Some time in the earlier 1970s, unable to pay his rent, Cole was forced to leave his negatives and prints behind at New York’s Pickwick Arms Hotel. Though nobody could say for sure, it appeared that in due course, the resource had been auctioned off in a job lot to defray expenses – or maybe it had just been thrown out as worthless junk. It was not clear which.

Whatever, the “lost” archive seemed irretrievably gone. As late as 2010, the Hasselblad Foundation’s research director, Gunilla Knape could still write, without qualification if with some melancholy: “Ernest Cole’s South African negatives are lost though they might have been sold at auction, so perhaps they will be retrieved one day… His work made in exile is also lost, part of it maybe together with the South African negatives.”

Now all of that has been stood on its head. Not only has a substantial archive come to light of some 14,000 negatives from his pre-exile South African work – many of the images in question never shown or published before – but the resource also includes a trove of around 46,000 negatives shot after Cole’s flight from the country of his birth. The majority of these are of subjects related to what was to have been a major photographic book project for which Cole had secured Ford Foundation funding, and which was to have examined the life experiences of blacks in the United States. Though Cole’s funding – starting in 1967 – was topped up at least until 1971, little evidence had, until now, come to light that the project, was ever so much as properly begun.

There is then – with the new discoveries – a huge reservoir of previously untapped material waiting to be examined, mulled over and assessed. Worlds to be opened up and to be interrogated through the thinking eye of a photographer so conspicuously gifted that in just over a decade he progressed from snapping his first shots on a hand-me-down Brownie box camera to being handled globally by Magnum Photos, probably the leading international agency of the day; to major photo spreads in periodicals like Life, Paris Match, Stern and the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine; and to the internationally triumphant publication of a book of his photo-essays as The House of Bondage – which was also accorded the backhanded tribute of having a nearly instant banning order slapped on it by the authorities in apartheid South Africa.

Skipping the country in 1966, with help from Lelyveld, who was also in a position to introduce and recommend the young Cole to movers and shakers in the field of photojournalism and documentary photography, Cole had a lot going for him.

Thanks to Lelyveld as well as supportive fellow photographers like Jurgen Schadeburg, intense international interest was soon generated in Cole’s work. He was being handled by leading agencies; he was getting intensive international exposure; and, by the good offices of another friend, photographer Struan Robertson, he had been reunited with the negatives and prints collected of his work from South Africa – by all accounts catalogued and preserved at this time with a care verging on obsessiveness. More than this, he had been awarded a Ford Foundation grant for a book length documentary study of American blacks in the “rural South” and the “urban ghetto”.

But gradually, things went wrong. When Cole’s passport expired at the end of 1968 – after the publication of The House of Bondage, and it’s banning in the country of his birth – the South African Embassy refused to renew it. An emergency travel document could indeed be issued, he was told – but only to enable Cole to return to South Africa. Presumably, to face the music.

Or he might be delivered into the hands of the cops seeking to blackmail him to testify against a gang of professional muggers who had allowed him to take photographs of them working the down town streets of Pretoria.

Or again, he might not even get that far. There was no guarantee that the apartheid authorities had not, by this time, worked out that Cole should not (under apartheid logic) have been in a position to hold a South African passport in the first place.

The thing is, the Ernest Cole who departed South Africa as a “coloured” South African of mixed race, was largely self-constructed. In fact, he had been born, in 1941, as Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole – ethnically sePedi, unambiguously “Bantu” under apartheid classification.

Exactly how he did it remains unclear, but – in the early 1960s, learning that, as a black South African, he would not be eligible to be issued a South African passport – Cole, somehow, succeeded in having himself reclassified as “coloured”, restyling himself at the same time as “Cole”.

In effect, the refusal by the South African authorities to renew his passport left Cole stateless, and, notwithstanding the fact that he was the recipient of a major public grant in the US, dramatically disempowered: effectively a fugitive from the country of his birth; not in a position to accept potentially lucrative commissions for photo essays on South African subjects; and not in a position either to execute photographic assignments that might be offered in the world at large. To make things worse, in the existential melee, he contrived to lose the work and residence permits empowering him to work in the US, and it was only towards the end of the 1970s, that – again thanks to the intervention of Lelyveld – a Green Card was finally issued. By this time, however, his archive was lost, and his cameras and other photographic equipment long since stolen in a long-ago burglary.

As it turned out, however, there was a sufficient number of people, who, like Lelyveld, both wielded enough influence and believed enough in Cole’s talent to smooth his way through even the most challenging of bureaucratic steeplechases. A Swedish alien passport was secured in due course and Scandanavian photo agencies and magazines made public commitments to nurturing what was projected as an internationally important career.

It was not enough. To what extent the difficulties that Cole encountered and which eventually overwhelmed him, were political and circumstantial and to what extent psychological or – as many people in contact with him believed, even clinical – remains unclear. But it was not long before he was pronouncing himself disappointed and disillusioned in the world beyond the borders of South Africa.

For one thing – as he explained in a letter from New York to the Swedish Alien Commission in November 1968 – he was finding himself the victim of professional typecasting.

Recording the truth at whatever cost is one thing,” he wrote, but “having to live a lifetime of being a chronicler of misery and injustice and callousness is another. And such matter is about the only assignments magazines here want to offer me because the subject matter of my first book happened to be centred on a ‘race’ issue, the colour of my skin – another incidental matter – and the fact that I endured and escaped the living hell that is South Africa.”

At the same time, it was clear that the world beyond the borders of South Africa failed to live up to Cole’s expectations in respect of racial equality. “Everywhere,” he observed in an interview with the New York Times, “I saw racial attitudes that were very much like those I know from South Africa.”

In Lelyveld’s words: “Cole discovered that in New York he was a black man too, and was disappointed of the high expectations he had of America.”

Even so, in his photography, he soon learned, it was not just a question of picking up where he had left off in his photographic chronicling of racism.

In the same interview Lelyveld remembers the harsh reality of a tailing off of interest in Cole’s work once his sensational South African portfolio had been worked through: “…the story was kind of left behind, his pictures in the South didn’t stand out much, and the editors that contacted him stopped picking his calls”.

It is often difficult to know what to make of Cole in exile. One acquaintance remembers him railing against the ghettos in which black Americans were forced to live; another comments on the ascetic elegance of his lifestyle. One has him drinking excessively and abusing drugs; another recalls his abstinence as a devout Christian, one has him raging, another remembers him catatonic…

The picture that emerges of Ernest Cole in exile – and specifically in the US – is of somebody restless and conflicted, not at ease with his circumstance nor possessed of any real hope that things would ever get better; debilitated, isolated… and far, far from a home to which he could never return.

It was disappointment verging on despair, as recalled by New York friends like Aubrey Nkomo, who also remembered Cole complaining that the access he was given to black families in the rural South made it impossible for him to get under the skin of his subject.

Against this background, and also the fact that the Cole never fed photographs back to the Ford Foundation, the received wisdom has long been that the linked projects that the foundation funded – one focusing on the deep South and the other on “Negro life in the city” – had ever really got off the ground. What has now come to light is that there are around 1,000 negatives from the rural part of the project and well over 40,000 images of black neighbourhoods in US cities.

To date the Cole family has released only a tiny handful of these, and there is no way as yet of assessing the general quality. But some, certainly, would appear to be images of interest and some accomplishment, worthy to be considered within the wider critical conversation of Cole’s photography.

Photo: In them old cotton fields… the slave’s view of labour seen through South African eyes.

There is, for instance, one that shows six African-American women labouring at harvesting cotton. Hard, desultory and thankless work it is too, as Cole establishes through a variety of formal usages: the bowed backs of the workers echoed across the picture plane; the lack of any eye contact or other psychological cues to empathy in the way the figures are seen; the formal alienation of the workers from one another — each cut off without interaction, within her own silo of focus and consciousness; the very harshness of the field, its plants growing like dry sticks, suggesting more of a shifting barrier than they do of earth’s bounty…

What is impressive in the photograph is the quality of empathy Cole brings to the subject – an empathy founded in his almost febrile sensitivities as a black South African. What Cole finds in the scene is an oppressive bleakness that falls across the picture like a shadow: a channelling of labour as a trope, not of dignity and the fulfilment of human purpose – what the masters of history characteristically want to like to highlight – but of its degradation: the slave’s view.

At the same time however, Cole has projected his subject into a zone where it transcends realism: his cotton fields at the same time as they almost viscerally naturalist, also look somehow like something half-remembered, something imbued with metaphor or embodying of archetype.

You can find a similarly neo-historicising quality – this time with a sneakily sentimental overlay – in a photograph of a group of black American children moving down a dirt road amidst lush wooded vegetation on their way to school. Despite Cole’s own gloomy assessment of the lives of black Americans, however, this image is one of hope and optimism, both in the symbolism it rehearses (the sylvan setting, the well tended road,) and the particulars of what it records (the exuberant energy of the group in its progress; the good health that glows out from happy faces).

Photo: Pupils on their way to school in the rural south of the US. Education with hope and a spring in the step – as opposed to the Bantu Education Cole simply declined to have anything to do with.

At the same time, the way Cole has pictured these kids references somewhat pointedly with their counterparts in a South Africa that, by the time Cole left the country was implementing the sinister educational programme of Bantu Education developed by then Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd: to use schooling not so much to promote learning as to prepare black South Africans for a socially engineered future as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

Cole himself felt so strongly on the issue he simply stopped going to school when Bantu Education was introduced. Instead he started taking photographs for a few cents a time on the streets and studying by correspondence. Nonetheless the power of the empathy and white hot anger he brought to the issue of apartheid education is inescapable in his photo essays on the subject in The House of Bondage: heartbreaking photographs of young intelligent faces sometimes leaning out for learning, sometimes with misplaced hope, sometimes grimly and sweatily knuckling down.

And, at the end of the day this is the point: that in looking to photograph race in the US, Cole was doing more than just recording how his black subjects lived. He was bringing them into a conversation – a dialectic – with his experience of race in South Africa. And where, more specifically – or so he hoped at the outset of US race project – the American experience could be used to develop a critique of apartheid in South Africa. As time went on, one might think, it was, in part at least, bumping up against the failures of American society to transcend race that brought down the black and debilitating clouds of depression that finally consumed him, sick and virtually indigent in 1990, nearly 25 years after he left South Africa.

Photo: ‘Transcending realism, like something half-remembered, something imbued with metaphor or embodying of archetype…’

Even apart from such considerations however, the new negatives constitute an important find. Almost from the time of its publication, Cole disowned The House of Bondage, complaining especially about what he thought of as a sensationalising tendency in the way that certain images had been cropped and juxtaposed – without his having been consulted. With many if not all of the House of Bondage negatives included in the Hasselblad stockpile, it could now be possible – if funding were forthcoming – to bring out a new edition of the book more congruent with his stated intentions.

There are also negatives from the same cycles or photo essays that fill out the subject of his images – for instance one, presumably held back in a more conservative historical moment, that shows a group of migrant mine workers being “processed” through a shower in full frontal. The image is a compelling one of the shocking callousness of the apartheid system at its underbelly.

But, perhaps, in a different register, we will find in the trove of negatives some that might answer to the hope Cole expressed in the same letter quoted earlier to the Swedish Alien Commission in 1968, that he might be able to “focus my talents on other aspects of life which I assumed would be more hopeful (than apartheid realities) and some joy to it”.

The total man does not live one experience. He is moulded and shaped by the diversity of other experiences into some form of the whole man,” he said.

It may be that we will be better positioned to encounter the traceries of that whole man, somewhere in the new archival resource. DM

Main photo: Jobseekers being processed en masse for employment on the Witwatersrand mines. Seen through Cole’s lens the image eerily brings to mind the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. The theme is one included in the House of Bondage. All Photos by Ernest Cole, Courtesy of the Ernest Cole Family Trust.

Gallery
0