Exhibition Review: Ernest Cole Photographer

Grey Art Gallery at New York University
3 September – 6 December 2014

Images of South African apartheid (1948 – 1994) are not part of the living memory of today’s New York University students. To those of us that can recall, a pin attached to Bill Cosby’s memorable sweaters provided one of the only clues to apartheid’s gruesome existence during our childhood. Thankfully, Ernest Cole Photographer, the current exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, is an infinitely more complex introduction to this episode of modern barbarism.

The first solo museum exhibition of Ernest Cole’s photojournalism, Ernest Cole Photographer is a guided tour of racial and labor divisions as experienced by black men and women, witnessed by the eye of one of South Africa’s first black photo journalist. The exhibition showcases 125 rare gelatin silver prints from Cole’s archive. Some of these images have been published in Cole’s masterful photo essay, House of Bondage. The book, published in New York in 1967 by Random House, was banned back in South Africa for the rest of Cole’s life. The critical recording of life on the streets, mines, hospitals, and servant quarters during apartheid is made available once again here in the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition.

Before his exile in New York, Cole had been one of the first South African photojournalists. He was born in 1940 in a black township on the edge of Pretoria, one of the few places where black people could hold property. He was the fourth of six children, and grew up in a family of modest means – his father worked as a tailor and his mother as a laundress. As a boy, Cole obsessed over owning a camera. He stood for hours at the vitrine of his local photo shop, knowing his parents could not afford to pay for one. One evening, a family friend got word of Cole’s obsession and donated an old camera in storage. Cole became an ambitious young photographer by his early twenties, he was taken under the wing of Jürgen Schadeberg, the German-born head of the photo department at the black lifestyle magazine, Drum. Schadeberg hired Cole to design page layouts for Drum, here he learned about editing and sequencing pictures and became more politically conscious. He also met an exceptional group of young black photojournalists, including Bob Gosani, Alf Kumalo and, later, Peter Magubane. After training at Drum and completing a correspondence course with a photography school in New York, Cole began a freelance career.

In these formative years, Cole studied the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, especially his work shot while in China and Russia. Walking through the exhibition at Grey Art Gallery today, one gets the strong impression that Cole might be one of the most compelling of Cartier-Bresson’s students. His appreciation for Cartier-Bresson’s street photography is apparent in the carefully placed but candid gaze of his miners and servants. The quality of making evident, of witnessing through the captured expressions is forefront in both Cole and Cartier-Bresson’s work. Both share a fascination with the bustle of modern life, that is, of window shops, crowded trains, and working people as they were in their day-to-day experiences, and with the stolen, fragile gazes captured in the ever-present of the photographic image.

The Grey Art exhibition offers an intimate encounter with Cole’s early work in Drum. In six images, we find the most tender interactions between black and white South Africans in the entire show; men and women dance, laugh, flirt and drink together, apparently ignorant of the law. This brief encounter is a welcome break from the misery, exhaustion and violence evident in the rest of the exhibition. In these images, a black woman puts her palms over a white man’s ears, the man smiles. They look happy. A light-skinned man puts his hand over a black woman’s breast, they both laugh in their embrace. Even in these years when interracial sex was banned in South Africa these photos show a glimmer of erotic pleasure, a form of happiness easily identifiable in Cole’s photographs.

Much of Cole’s work depicts sharp divisions between black people in South Africa, for example, the division between the government bureaucrat and the worker, and the imposed distance between husband and wife due to apartheid’s division of labor. In these nuanced ways, Cole captures the loneliness at the core of black life under apartheid.

The first part of the show is dedicated to the new experiences of laboring black people under the system of racial classification, specifically the life of black male miners, black female servants, and workers in commute. Cole recorded the long and arduous process through which a young black man becomes a mineworker; he photographed each of the steps in the bureaucratic process, from documentation, to medical examinations, to the conditions of life, food and sleep. His is a detailed examination of experience at a time wherein black South Africans were treated as little more than a source of labor. A familiar subject in this part of his work is the queue: the lines of long faces in the crowded rows of men, tired, and waiting endlessly for work. Very few return the gaze, most are lost in exhaustion.

In the next group of photographs in the exhibition, Cole shares intimate portraits of female servants and their living quarters. These women house servants were legally bound to stay in quarters outside the white families’ homes. In this room, the viewer encounters solitary women resting and reading in their spartan interiors; Cole shows how some used newspaper as their carpets and fruit crates as their chairs and desks. Most of the women look elsewhere, but one; she walks almost coquettishly toward the camera. Another reads on her bed, a slice of the fragment of freedom she enjoyed on the one half-day a week she was off-duty and allowed to leave the sight of her white employers. This series of portraits establish a closeness that separates them from Cole’s photographs of black miners.

fig. 1


A perverse intimacy, however, is available in the photographs of miners. In episodes recording public showers and medical examinations, nude black bodies are stripped of their erotic content and placed under the constant scrutiny of discrimination and discernible pressures of production. In a photograph depicting men under medical examination, thirteen nude bodies face a dark wall in a line, their paperwork is on display next to their bare feet, their arms are extended over the dark edge of the wall into a white background (fig. 1). Against the empty backdrop, their hands appear to float, as if disembodied from the rest of their extremities. Here lies the measure of men solely wanted for the expenditure of physical labor. The photograph stands in sharp contrast to another image across the room, a playful composition of nude black children playing around an overflowing water spigot (fig. 2). The children play about, suspended in the air during mid jump, their skin glistening from the water. These young bodies, too young to understand what was to come, seem especially fragile to the viewer after walking through so many cruel images of forced labor.

The Grey Art Gallery has done a great service by paring Cole’s images with the descriptions and historical notes found in House of Bondage. The labels have precise and relevant information without disturbing the minimal presentation of the photographs. The exhibition is supplemented by carefully curated educational programming, including an evening of discussion with NYU professor Fred Richtin along with Joseph Lelyveld, who worked with Ernest Cole as the New York Times’s South African correspondent. A full list of programming is available on the gallery’s website and exhibition brochure. The Grey Art Gallery’s Ernest Cole Photographer is a welcome and necessary effort in order to better both the NYU community’s political consciousness and aesthetic education. So few exhibitions can do both so well.

fig. 2

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