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date: 21 October 2019

Cole, Ernest or Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kolefree

South African, 20th century, male.

Also active in Sweden and the United States.

Born 21 March 1940, in Eersterust, Pretoria; died 18 February 1990, in New York.

Photojournalist, documentary photographer. Figures, city life, apartheid history.

Ernest Cole’s earliest photographs appeared in Zonk magazine. In 1958 he joined Drum, working as an assistant to Jürgen Schadeberg, and completed a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography. In 1960 he went freelance, producing work on various subjects for South African newsweeklies. His more political work was published internationally, arousing suspicion from apartheid authorities.

Frustrated by the travel restrictions imposed on black citizens, Cole in 1965 had himself reclassified as ‘Coloured’, enabling him to move freely and also receive a passport. In 1966 Cole went into exile, initially in London, where he published in the Sunday Times Magazine, and then in New York. His book House of Bondage, published in the United States in 1967 and banned in South Africa, recorded what Cole described as the ‘extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black’.

His request in 1968 to renew his passport was declined, leaving Cole stateless, moving between Stockholm and New York. The Ford Foundation, a major patron until 1971, funded a study of two black US families from contrasting rural and urban backgrounds. The project was never published. Cole’s career dwindled and he lived in penury, despite the prominent use of his photographs by the international anti-apartheid movement. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, opened in 2001, includes a permanent display of photos from House of Bondage.

Group Exhibitions

1980, Children Under Apartheid, portable group exhibition, International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF), London

2012, Rise & Fall of Apartheid, International Center for Photography, New York

Solo Exhibitions

2010, Ernest Cole Photographer, Johannesburg Art Gallery

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Cape Town (Iziko South African NG)

Cape Town (Mayibuye Archive, University of the Western Cape)

Gothenburg (Hasselblad Foundation)

Johannesburg (AG)

Johannesburg (Apartheid Mus.)

New York (MoMA)

Bibliography

  • Cole, Ernest: House of Bondage, Random House, New York, 1967.
  • Ernest Cole Photographer, exhibition catalogue, Steidl, Göttingen, 2010.