By CELIA W. DUGGER
JOHANNESBURG - When he was only in his 20s Ernest Cole, a photographer who stood barely 152 centimeters tall, created one of the most harrowing pictorial records of what it was like to be black in apartheid South Africa.
He went into exile in 1966, and the next year his work was published in the United States in a book, “House of Bondage,” but his photographs were banned in his homeland, where he and his work have remained little known. For much of the late 1970s and 1980s Mr. Cole was homeless in New York .
of the past, still
He died at 49 in 1990, just a week after Nelson Mandela walked free. His sister flew back to South Africa with his ashes . Mr. Cole is at last having another kind of homecoming.
The largest retrospective of his work ever mounted is on display at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, built in the neo-Classical style almost a century ago in an era when South Africa’s great mining fortunes were being made on the backs of black labor. It still possesses the power to shock and anger.
“How could white people do this to us?” asked Lebogang Malebana, 14, as he stood before a photograph of nude gold-mine recruits who had been herded into a grimy room for examination. “How could they put naked black men on display like that?” Lebogang, an eighth grader, had drifted in from a nearby apartment.
His mother is a maid; his father is in jail. “It’s very sad,” he said as he lingered over the black-and-white images. “I feel angry,” Jimmy Phindi Tjege, 27, who like many young black South Africans has never held a job, said as he gestured to the rest of the gallery . “This room is full of anger.”
Mr. Cole’s captions and photographs are imbued with wrenching emotions. Next to a photo of a maid holding a white baby whose lips are pressed to the woman’s forehead, the caption says: “Servants are not forbidden to love.
Woman holding child said, ‘I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does.’ ” Next year the exhibition will travel to Pretoria, where Mr. Cole’s family still lives, and other South African cities; an American tour is also planned.
The son of a washerwoman and a tailor, Mr. Cole quit high school in 1957 at 16 as the Bantu education law meant to consign blacks to menial labor went into effect. When he was 20, the apartheid authorities bulldozed the black township where his family lived .
Somehow, pretending to be an orphan, he had by then persuaded apartheid bureaucrats to reclassify him as colored, or mixed race, despite his dark skin. His ability to pass as colored gave him the mobility that proved crucial to his photography. In New York in the mid-1970s, a destitute Mr. Cole lost his photographs and negatives to an auction of unclaimed items.
For years rumors circulated that prints had survived in Sweden. When the South African photographer David Goldblatt received the Hasselblad Award in 2006, and traveled to Gothenburg, Sweden, to accept it, he was shown the images. “They can’t lie in a vault,” he said. The Hasselblad Foundation organized the Cole exhibition. “He wasn’t just brave,” said Mr. Goldblatt.
“He wasn’t just enterprising. He was a supremely fine photographer.”