Ernest Cole was born on 21st March 1940 on the outskirts of Pretoria and died on 21st February 1990 in New York City. He was 49 years old. His half-century had encompassed an astonishing rise and a devastating fall. Growing up amidst discrimination in South Africa, inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cole emerged as the first black ‘essayist’ in South African photographic history; in 1966 he fled to Europe and later, the United States; House Of Bondage – the first photographic book by a black South African – was published in 1967. House of Bondage brought the daily realities, humiliations, and horrors of apartheid to the outside world for the first time. Cole became an associate of Magnum Photos and benefited from small exhibitions in Europe, most notably Sweden, and commissions from the Ford Foundation and Life magazine.
It was readily assumed that the vast majority of Cole’s negatives had been lost – it was acknowledged that some never left South Africa when he did, but there was also no trace of his subsequent work in the USA or Europe. Then, out of the blue, Cole’s nephew Leslie Matlaisane, was contacted in South Africa by a Swedish bank asking him if he would like to retrieve around 60,000 negatives from three safety deposit boxes. There was no information on who had placed the negatives there or paid for their storage, but the bank was now requesting they be removed. Matlaisane obliged in 2017, before bringing the work to Magnum in 2018.
Within these 60,000 negatives is unseen work from South Africa that predates Cole’s exile, as well as work made in the USA until his retirement from photography. A new edition of House of Bondage – to be published by Aperture this autumn – features a chapter of unpublished work from this recently resurfaced cache of negatives, recontextualizing this pivotal book for our time.
Here, Hamish Crooks, Magnum’s former Global Licensing Director, together with Mark Sanders, Special Advisor to the Ernest Cole Family Trust, will discuss what we know of Cole’s life and work, the importance of his work’s inclusion in the Magnum archive, and the new expanded edition of House of Bondage.