Ernest Cole (1940-1990) believed passionately in his mission to tell the world in photographs what it was like and what it meant to be black under apartheid. He identified intimately with his own people in photographs of unsurpassed strength and gravitas. With imaginative daring, courage and compassion, he portrayed the full range of experience of black people as they negotiated their lives through the insanity of apartheid and its racist laws and oppression. In order to publish his book, House of Bondage, Cole went into exile. Immediately after it came out in 1967, it was banned in South Africa and this major critique of apartheid has hardly been seen in his own country.
Cole died in New York in 1990 after more than 23 years of painful exile, never having returned to South Africa and leaving no known negatives and few prints of his monumental work. Tio fotografer, an association of Swedish photographers with whom Cole worked from 1969 to 1975 when his place of residence was Stockholm, received a collection of his prints and these were later donated to the Hasselblad Foundation.
Among the photographs are some extremely rare exhibition prints made by Cole himself, which are now to be seen publicly for the first time. The accompanying book, Ernest Cole, Photographer, offers an autobiographical fragment, a critical appreciation of the man and his work, reminiscences and writings by people who knew him and extensive research on his life.
Together the exhibition and the book offer new insights to the complex interaction between Cole's unflinching revelations of apartheid at work, and the power and yet the subtlety and even the elegance of his photographic ‘seeing'. They bring long overdue honour to a man and a photographer of extraordinary courage and stature.