Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage
The reissue of the 1967 photobook conceptualizes the photographs as images that defy the prescribed category of documentary photography.
House of Bondage
In the fall of 1966, South African photographer Ernest Cole (1940–90) arrived in New York, toting negatives that offered the world a previously-unseen vocabulary of the racial segregation in his homeland. Cole’s dossier—which made plain the abject dehumanization of Black South Africans to an international audience—would be published by Ridge Press and Random House in 1967 as House of Bondage. This version of the book, one of the most significant of the twentieth century, narrativized Cole as a particular type of author—an “outsider” photojournalist who compiled expository documents and testimonies of truth. “A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today,” the dark dust-jacket’s sensationalist footer reads. The back cover, which contains biographical text beside a black-and-white passport-like photograph of Cole, positions him as a twenty-seven-year-old who “left his homeland” on a mission to “expose” the “true.”
This mythology continues to haunt interpretations of Cole’s work. House of Bondage is seen as paradigmatic of anti-apartheid “struggle” photography, part of the photographic traditions of reportage and the photo-essay. And it’s no wonder: Cole amassed a fastidious trove of detective-like documents—research folders filled with newspaper clippings, labor contracts, drafts for photographic captions, and mathematical calculations—that trace the quotidian manifestations of oppression under apartheid. Yet his photographs bear an uncanniness: though the 1967 publication ascribed a documentary vernacular to Cole's works, the photographs themselves undermine that notion through a reliance on radical formal techniques. In a photograph for “Nightmare Rides,” a chapter describing the inhumane train journey Black commuters were subject to under apartheid’s segregated railway system, men cling onto the exterior of the carriage as the train speeds along. In the photobook, Cole defines this treacherous method of clinging onto the outside of trains as “washing.” “When a train goes by at speed,” he writes, “these passengers look like clothes hanging on a washline.” The blurriness here renders the bodies indistinct, and thus makes visible both the psychical and physical violence undertaken by the bodily form during these nightmare rides.
Some fifty years later, House of Bondage has been reissued by Aperture, its cover emblazoned with this eerily blurred photograph of men clinging onto an overcrowded train cart. The Hasselblad Foundation and Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken had stored Cole’s negatives since 1972, and the return of these (along with his contact sheets) to the Ernest Cole Family Trust in 2017 has made House of Bondage—out-of-print since the 1980s—now widely available again. Edited by Aperture’s Denise Wolff, this new edition contains the original publication within it: the photobook’s chapter arrangement, design layout, and texts written by Cole exist as they did in 1967. Incisive scholarly essays by Mongane Wally Serote, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, and James Sanders precede the pages of the original edition, and an additional chapter—which Cole had gathered and marked images on the contact sheets for (found in the cache of materials in 2017)—follows it. The new photobook—and the cover image in question—can be considered what Onabanjo terms “an act of documentary defiance.” She writes, “The blurred figures attest to the possibility of Black life that can’t be contained by the strictures of apartheid.” Aperture’s edition presents Cole as a maker of images that move beyond the spheres of social division and segregation under the apartheid state. The new endpapers reveal Cole’s contact sheets: film strips of the same shot captured over and over again, the slight variegation of composition in each attesting to his acute attention to the formal construction of the image. The reissue considers how the photographs function rhetorically outside of the site of the photobook. The resulting approach recontextualizes the work for contemporary audiences, and it conceptualizes the photographs as images that defy the prescribed categorical prisms of forensic documentary photography.
The chapter of unpublished negatives grouped and titled “Black Ingenuity” by Cole himself shows studied performers, devoted musicians, and whirling dancers at the Dorkay House, home of the African Music and Drama Association in Johannesburg, offering a visual lexicon of all that took place in despite of—and in resistance to—the apartheid regime. A vignette of three film-noir style photographs sketch the silhouette of a pianist. Clouds of smoke emanate from the cigarette the pianist waves in hand, perhaps evoking the rhythmic motion working to steady his tune and compose his next number. Another series in the chapter chronicles a boxing match; the athletes oil their bodies and boxers jab one another while a crowd of Black onlookers cheer.
A photograph of the muscular bodies of the boxers lined up to receive some sort of trophy provides an especially striking parallel to what is arguably Cole’s most iconic photograph, During Group Medical Examination. The image is part of the chapter titled “The Mines,” which documents the processing of workers alongside their squalid living conditions in the Witwaterstrand gold mines of South Africa. Nude bodies are corralled and queued for mass medical examination, “herded through a string of doctor’s offices,” as Cole’s caption notes. The bodies are turned away, their individual differences obscured and rendered illegible. The only item they bear are white wristbands, which served as identification bracelets in the mines. In the photograph for “Black Ingenuity,” the line of male bodies face toward the viewer. Photographed from a low-angle, the athletes’ strength and smiles shine for the audience beneath them. And a look into the young photographer’s notes reveals his scribbles atop the research folder for the chapter: “remnants of everything, of joy, of peace, and harmony, of culture, of creativity,” Cole writes, “and of all the things they failed to stamp out.”