The Photographs of Ernest Cole

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Ernest ColeIt was 1968 when South African photographer Ernest Cole arrived in Detroit without notice or fanfare.? As part of his itinerary to promote his book House of Bondage somewhere, someone had told him that Detroit with its intense political activism at the moment might welcome his visit.? And that they did, at least a group of radicals who put him up for a few days and set up meetings.

I was among those who met him and was astonished by what he had accomplished.? A small, shy black man, Cole had secretly and bravely documented the day-today life in apartheid South Africa, many times risking his life to capture his riveting collection of photos.

As I remember it, he wasn?t in town very long and he vanished under the same cloak of quiet and shadow that had brought him into our midst.

Over the years his name would come up, particularly among artists from South Africa and worldly photographers in the city, but, for the most part, he had become as invisible as he was in South Africa as he moved from place to place compiling the images that would make him famous.

In 1990, his obituary put him back in touch with that throng of admirers who wondered where he had disappeared.

Now, his photographs are again available both at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University where they will be on display until December 6 and in a hefty catalogue, including many of the photos from House of Bondage.

Also available for those without the funds for the catalogue is the free ?Grey Gazette? brochure that provides a rather extensive discussion of Cole, his background, legacy, and the mystery that shrouded his last days.

Cole?s fascination with photographer began very early and by the time he was a teenager he was working in a darkroom for the popular South African magazine Drum.

But the moment he got behind the lens of a camera he came alive and so did the often awful circumstances facing his black countrymen and women.

Cole, said one friend familiar with his work, ?had to slip behind the veil.? That place was literally inside the off-limits mines, settlements, hospitals, and workplaces where black Africans were not allowed to be without a pass.?? Some of his stealth and subterfuge was facilitated by fellow white writers he traveled with since his presence was often ignored by the white officials, supervisors and guards.

Plus, Cole had taken stringent measures to obtain documents that classified him as Colored, which gave him access to areas his dark skin would not be allowed.

One of his most gripping photos is of a child sweating during his school lessons, his eyes intensely on the unseen teacher and not disturbed by Cole?s camera.? This photo is typical of Cole?s way of capturing the humanity of his subject without intruding on their privacy.? Even so, many of them seem to welcome his shots that affirmed their existence in a society in which they were reduced to nothingness.

The Grey Art Gallery is located at 100 Washington Square East, NYU, and is open daily except on Mondays and Sundays, from 11:00am to 6pm or 8pm, depending on the day of your visit.? Call 212) 998-6780 for additional information.

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