Photographs by Ernest Cole: Black History in a Swedish Bank Vault

Photographs by Ernest Cole: Black History in a Swedish Bank Vault

Ernest Cole was born in 1940 to a Black family in the Eersterust township, near Pretoria, South Africa. As a child, he witnessed the formalization of the apartheid regime. When he was a teenager, he began working for Drum, a South African magazine geared toward Black readers. He later changed the spelling of his surname from Kole to Cole, which—along with straightening his hair—helped reclassify him as “Coloured,” a formal designation that gave him more freedom of movement in the country’s calcifying racial hierarchy. He became one of South Africa’s first Black freelance photographers, earning the ire of apartheid enforcers by capturing the human costs of the regime.

TK
TK

But Cole wanted to have a wider reach, and in 1966, he arrived in the United States, having smuggled enough photos out of South Africa to publish a book. House of Bondage introduced many people around the world to the horrors of apartheid. Those images of malnutrition and ritual humiliation were also the last he’d take of his country. He was soon banned from South Africa, and after sojourns in Sweden, he faded into obscurity on the streets of New York City. Cole, who died in exile in 1990, never published another book.

Then, in 2017, a member of Cole’s family was mysteriously invited to Stockholm at the behest of a Swedish bank. There, in three safety-deposit boxes, were tens of thousands of negatives, many taken during Cole’s years in America. The True America, released by Aperture in January, showcases this collection, much of which had not been previously published. Cole did not leave behind detailed information about these photos, which means that today’s viewers must infer from context what they depict. We do know that the American series began with a grant he received from the Ford Foundation to essentially replicate his work on apartheid in the urban ghettos and on the rural plantations that dominated Black American life. He must have been ambivalent about the project: Cole had come to America hoping to broaden his portfolio, and he did not want to be pigeonholed as someone who captured only oppression. Still, there’s an insurgent air about this collection. In the Black communities Cole visited in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he found people smiling, lounging, dancing, and worshipping. At a time when interracial marriage was intensely controversial, he captured a Black man and a white woman embracing on a New York subway. Cole paid attention to the media that Black people created and consumed: newspapers from the Nation of Islam, ads for Ultra Sheen Creme Satin-Press, adult magazines. He covered major historical events, traveling to Lowndes County, Alabama, during its famed freedom struggle, and to the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, on April 9, 1968. His photographs are inversions of the authoritative images ingrained in our collective memory from those moments. Cole’s world is front porches and vanity plates and processed hair: history, from below.

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TK

Cole saw South African apartheid and American institutional racism in their full power, with all of their teeth. These systems were intended to be eternal machines, creating and re-creating order for as long as each nation lasted. But Cole also bore witness to the possibility of a different outcome. Through the stoic faces of Black South African miners and the signs of Garveyites on parade in New York, he documented the people who dreamed otherwise.

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TK

Masterpieces find their moment, and the rediscovery of these photographs comes at a time when they are once again sorely needed. The historical memory of slavery and Jim Crow is under threat in America, and globally, the far right agitates for a return to white domination. The True America, as a belated bookend to House of Bondage, reinforces the interconnectedness of all forms of state oppression, and reminds us that the present always has to do with the past.


All images: Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1967–72, from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2024). © 2024 Ernest Cole Family Trust.

This article appears in the March 2024 print edition with the headline “Lost Photographs of Black America.”

Ernest Cole: The True America

By Ernest Cole


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