Ernest Cole - Photographer


  • Ernest Cole - Photographer
  • Ernest Cole - Photographer
  • Ernest Cole - Photographer
  • Ernest Cole - Photographer
  • Ernest Cole - Photographer
  • Ernest Cole - Photographer
  • Ernest Cole - Photographer

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  • New, first edition
  • Hardcover, clothbound in dust jacket, 256 pp, 120 tritone illustrations, 2.8 x 26.3 x 24.3 cm
  • Published by Steidl, 2010

Please note we have not included the cover image for this title, due to restraints placed on the types of images suitable for social media sharing.

This book will enable Ernest Cole to be seen in the perspective of international photography where he surely deserves an honoured place, not simply for his remarkable courage and determination in the face of state oppression but for the perceptiveness of his seeing eye and his ability to put what he saw into photographs of remarkable rigour, subtlety and elegance. These qualities were often subordinated to the need for the strongest possible anti-apartheid statement in his acclaimed book House of Bondage, published in 1967.

Many of the photographs have never been published before and others, which were cropped in the book for their maximum political effect, will now be seen un-cropped for the first time.

In February 1990, just a week after Nelson Mandela was finally freed after 27 years in prison, Ernest Cole died in poverty in New York, aged 49. He had spent 24 years in exile from his native South Africa and for most of his 20s and 30s had lived on the streets of New York, homeless, penniless and anonymous. Now, finally, this overlooked pioneer of South African reportage photography is gaining the recognition he so richly deserves.

"Cole crammed a lot into his first 26 years. The son of a tailor and a washerwoman, he left school at 16 and, by passing himself off as an orphan, managed to get reclassified under apartheid rules as "coloured" rather than "black". This meant he could move freely through the country without a work permit, which proved an invaluable asset when he became a photographer. In 1958, having bought a Nikon Rangefinder, he became a production assistant for the renowned Drum magazine, and began a correspondence course in photography. Soon after, he began photographing everyday life under apartheid, often at considerable risk to himself. He is now generally recognised as South Africa's first black freelance photographer.

In 1967, the year after he fled South Africa, Cole's first book, House of Bondage, was published to great critical acclaim. It was promptly banned in South Africa, where the images caused a political furore. Reviewing it in the Guardian, his fellow South African, novelist Dan Jacobson, praised Cole's "lack of sentimentality, his tenderness, his anger, his wit". For many outside the country, Cole's photographs of life in the townships and the mines were the first glimpses of the harshness and oppression of life under apartheid in South Africa.

This new volume includes many of those defining images, here shown uncropped for the first time, their compositional artistry even more apparent. It also includes many new images, including several from a suitcase of Cole's prints and negatives that were uncovered in a vault in Sweden in 2006 by South African photographer David Goldblatt. The book also highlights Cole's brilliant and often provocative use of narrative. One sequence shows a white man being mugged by black youths on a crowded street; another, which records a group of young black children begging, captures a white man administering a slap to one of their faces as he walks casually past. It is work like this – intimate, snatched, provocative – that sets Cole apart from other politically driven photojournalists of the time.

In an era during which a black South African holding a camera would be viewed with great suspicion, Ernest Cole followed his calling with incredibly bravery, his already keen eye sharpened further by stealth and anger. Finally, then, a fitting testament to a true pioneer. 

From a Guardian Review of the book in 2011:

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