Ernest Cole photographs shed light on apartheid
It was standing-room only at the Goodman gallery, on Johannesburg’s suburban “art strip”, so I dropped to the floor and squatted. All eyes were on the author Ivan Vladislavic and photographer David Goldblatt.
Behind them was the latter’s ironic shot of the ruins of Shareworld, a failed amusement park for Sowetans in the shadow of Soccer City, the World Cup stadium.
Days earlier, I slipped into a seat in an auditorium deep in the belly of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, in the rather less fashionable area of Hillbrow.
There were only three other spectators, barely a quorum.
But we had gathered to watch a documentary about another South African photographer, Ernest Cole, whose work was on display upstairs.
Goldblatt (80) exhibited around the world, and Cole, who died in penury at the age of 49, began on a similar path that was to dramatically diverge. It seemed that one would enjoy lasting reverence while the other was lost to obscurity. But one of life’s elegant conjunctions has seen an act of homage deliver a posthumous redemption.
Goldblatt and Vladislavic were discussing their unusual diptych: the photographer’s work under the title TJ, from the long gone car licence plates for Transvaal, Johannesburg, and the novelist’s Double Negative. Around the walls were some of Goldblatt’s pictures from 1948 to the present, holding a mirror up to racial apartheid and its persistent manifestations.
Some stayed on my mind’s retina long after the pictures were taken down. Hold-up in Hillbrow: in 1963 a white boy in checked dungarees jabs a toy pistol in the backside of a black man in suit, hat and shiny shoes. A city view from 1964: pedestrians, all black, heading south for trains to Soweto; motorists, all white, heading in the opposite direction for the northern suburbs. In the same year, a black woman practises her golf swing on a desolate, dusty scrap of urban land.
Fast forward to the present and an aerial view of Diepsloot, a biblical vision of shacks and informal housing stretching into a seemingly infinite horizon. At Johannesburg’s Central Methodist church, dozens of Zimbabwean refugees try to sleep while crammed into the pews and on the floor. Then a powerful series taking offenders to the scenes of their crimes. As Goldblatt admitted, such images need captions to tell their stories.
He recalled how, as a young photographer seeking work, he put an advert in a local paper offering: “One portrait, one print”. A typo meant it appeared as: “One portrait, one pint”, which raised unrealistic expectations.
He pursued images of people in their homes, particularly their bedrooms, which he found the most intimate and moving. He told the audience: “My understanding of what excites me: the existence of things, the fact that something is. The ‘is-ness’: not the idea of things but the existence of things.”
Goldblatt is white. Ernest Cole was black. Jurgen Schadeberg’s documentary told how Cole left school at 16 and landed a job at Drum magazine as a darkroom assistant. He then saved enough money to buy cameras and studied the art.
Inspired by the candid style of Henri Cartier-Bresson, he became South Africa’s first black freelance photographer.
In the teeth of racial segregation, this took cunning, courage and ingenuity. Cole hid his camera in a paper lunch bag so he could smuggle it into tightly policed mining compounds and expose the mistreatment of labourers.
He successfully applied to have himself racially reclassified as coloured, or mixed race, so he could travel beyond the Bantu enclaves. He pulled this off by changing his name from Kole to Cole and because of his ability to speak Afrikaans, often the language of coloured people.
His work was published in the 1967 book House of Bondage, which was banned in South Africa but gave many in the west their first glimpse of the daily dehumanisation in townships, mines and hostels. As an eyewitness body of work it is South Africa’s first world war poetry.
There are hellish images of packed commuter trains, all heads and elbows, and overcrowded stations that would silence any London Underground whinger. Twin tracks of sweat trickle down the cheeks of a schoolboy as he crouches, chalkboard on bare knee, and stares upward with startling intensity.
In Mine Recruition, a dozen naked men are lined up against a wall, arms raised high above their heads, awaiting a degrading examination beside the banal detail of a wash basin. Another shot simply shows, in close up, two hands cuffed together, at once both unfree yet newly comraded.
Like Goldblatt, Cole chose his captions carefully. Images of young black artful dodgers preying on white men are furnished with: “Whites are angered if touched by anyone black, but a black hand under the chin is enraging. This man, distracted by his fury, does not realise his pocket is being rifled.”
Cole’s racial reclassification enabled him to travel and go into exile in America. A friend there had his faith in the land of the free shaken when he accompanied Cole to a restaurant in New York only to find they had not escaped racial prejudice.
Slowly Cole’s life fell apart. His family says he may have been exploited and underpaid for his work, which included a sublime gallery of New York’s poor. Cole was destitute when he died from cancer in 1990, a week after the release of Nelson Mandela. He seemed unlikely ever to enjoy the same acclamation in his homeland as anti-apartheid artists such as Athol Fugard or Hugh Masekela.
Goldblatt’s work, meanwhile, is in the collections of the South African National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
His prizes included the Hasselblad award in 2006, which entailed travelling to Sweden. Goldblatt had heard a rumour that a suitcase of Cole’s photographs had found its way to the Hasselblad Foundation. The rumour was true and, like an archaeologist blowing off the dust, he beheld a long lost treasure.
He realised that many of the photographs in House of Bondage had been clumsily cropped, apparently to enhance their political impact but at the expense of artistic integrity. The discovery meant the pictures could be displayed as Cole intended for the first time.
The retrospective Cole exhibition, surrounded by the urban decay of downtown, did not attract crowds like Goldblatt’s book tour, but became something of a sleeper hit, attracting coverage in the past week from the Sunday Times of South Africa, the Independent in the UK and the New York Times. Tours of South Africa, Europe and America are planned.
Hopefully many more people will see how this long-neglected pioneer caught the beauty and the ugliness of that peculiar world. With thanks to a respectful fellow traveller who goes on framing it for both of them. - guardian.co.uk