Dec/Jan 2012

Ernest Cole: Photographer

Michael Lesy


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BETWEEN 1958 AND 1966, Ernest Cole made photographs from inside the belly of the beast that imprisoned him and his fellow black South Africans. When his first and only photo book, House of Bondage, was published in 1967, Cole knew that if he stayed in his own country, he’d be arrested. He escaped, traveling through Africa and Europe before eventually settling in New York, where he died in 1990 of pancreatic cancer—half crazy, penniless, and alone. In this collection of more than one hundred photographs from South Africa—many reproduced from prints Cole made for a 1970 exhibition in Stockholm—we see the degradation that black citizens endured under apartheid. Cole created images as precisely rendered as the paintings of Jan van Eyck: miners celebrating the Sabbath in windowless barracks; sick men covered with rags, resting on plank beds in filthy hospitals; street kids huddled like feral cats, asleep on the cold ground; and, in this photo (above), a boy struggling to listen as he squats on the floor of a barren, overheated classroom. Though House of Bondage was banned in South Africa, the book made Cole a hero of conscience-driven photographers all over the Western world. This new volume, accompanied by three cogently written essays about Cole’s life and work, affirms his reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest documentary photographers. The Apollonian clarity and elegance of the images testify that good and evil are more than just words.

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