Street view

America through the lens – and not a moment too soon. In a year of critical importance for the United States, the release of Ernest Cole: The True America marks the first publication that chronicles much of the South African photographer’s work documenting Black American society. It speaks as much to a turbulent past as it does to an uncertain present.

In a year that sees both Americans and South Africans going to the polls to vote in new governments – elections that carry enormous weight for the foreseeable future of each country – the publication of Ernest Cole: The True America couldn’t be timelier. The publication is a curated selection of photographs of Black lives taken by photographer Ernest Cole between late 1967 and early 1972. These images were neither dated nor titled by Cole, and following his death, were widely considered lost. That is, until more than sixty thousand negatives of his resurfaced in Sweden in 2017. Photographs featured in the book are from over forty thousand negatives discovered in Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken, Stockholm, and returned to the Ernest Cole Family Trust in 2017.

Ernest Cole (originally Kole) was born in 1940 to a tailor father and washerwoman mother in the township of Eersterust, on the outskirts of Pretoria. Cole was the fourth of six children. By his mid-teens, Cole had arranged access to a camera and had established a darkroom in the family home. By eighteen, he had joined Drum magazine as a darkroom assistant. 

In 1960, Cole’s community were evicted from their homes in what was a ‘forced removal’, and relocated to Mamelodi, also near Pretoria. As journalist James Sanders, who specializes in South African politics and history, writes in his essay in the publication, ‘To a young person like Cole this would have been a devastating wake-up call to his family’s vulnerability in the apartheid state. To what degree this influenced his decision to secure reclassification from “Black” to “coloured” (mixed race) is not known, but it would have demonstrated that the struggle with apartheid could never be balanced. In the following years Cole and his siblings reclassified as coloured and changed the spelling of their surname. The name change is important because Kole is an African name and Cole a coloured or white name. Being classified coloured as opposed to Black provided Cole with advantages over his Black African competitors: he could apply for a passport, and he did not have to carry the pass book, which would have limited his ability to work as a Black freelance photographer.’

Cole spent time working at Drum magazine, first as a darkroom assistant and then as a photographer. He also contributed photographs to Rand Daily News and the Sunday Express. In 1965, Cole approached Joseph Lelyveld, a New York Times correspondent based in South Africa, and subsequently had a selection of his photographs published in the American newspaper. 

In 1966 at the age of twenty-six, Cole fled apartheid South Africa, becoming a ‘banned person’. He settled in New York. A year later, he published House of Bondage, a photographic book that chronicles the horrors of apartheid. Whilst living in New York, he became associated with Magnum Photos and was the recipient of funding from the Ford Foundation, encouraged by the foundation to photograph Black communities and cultures in North America. 

Cole photographed much of his work on the streets of New York City. Additionally, he travelled to both urban and rural areas across the country, photographing Black communities in the months leading up to, and just after, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s generally considered that Cole’s photographs from this time capture both the newfound freedom that he experienced as well as the injustices of systemic racism. He released only a limited number of images from this body of work whilst alive. Cole died in 1990 from cancer at the age of forty-nine.

Ernest Cole: The True America includes a preface by award-winning director Raoul Peck, who is currently working on a documentary about Cole, as well as essays by the Art Institute of Chicago’s Leslie M. Wilson, and James Sanders. The 275 images reproduced in the publication include photographs shot on the streets of Harlem, Midtown Manhattan, and further afield, like Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis and the Rural South.

Ernest Cole: The True America is published by Aperture and is available at leading book stores or at https://aperture.org/books/ernest-cole-the-true-america/.

Words and production: Martin Jacobs
Portrait photograph: Courtesy Magnum Photo