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Introducing Ernest Cole: A Lens In Exile

POSTED: 12 June 2024

Introducing Autograph’s new exhibition by South African photographer Ernest Cole and his work documenting Black American life against the backdrop of the struggle for civil rights

Our new exhibition is the first dedicated display of Ernest Cole’s photographs documenting New York City during the height of the civil rights movement in America. Focusing on the humanity of everyday life in Harlem and Manhattan, Cole captures the experience of living in a racialised America between 1967 – 1972.

Below we introduce the artist and the exhibition, and provide a timeline mapping out the artist’s life and key events highlighting the context in which he was working in. Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile is free to visit at Autograph until 12 October 2024.

who is ernest cole?

Cole was born in a black freehold township in South Africa, in 1940, just eight years before apartheid was formally introduced in the country.

Cole is best known for his early work documenting the violence of South African apartheid for Drum magazine and the New York Times among numerous other publications. In 1966, Cole was forced to flee the Republic of South Africa and smuggled much of his work out of the country. He settled in New York and the following year published the works in House of Bondage, which has become one of the most significant photobooks of the twentieth century.

I decided to make photojournalism my life work. I felt that through my pictures, I could lift the curtain hiding what life was really like for the black man under the white racist regime."

Ernest Cole, "My Country, My Hell!", published in Ebony Magazine, February 1968.

what work is displayed in the exhibition?

The exhibition at Autograph focuses on the important yet lesser-known work produced by Cole during his time spent in New York after being exiled from South Africa. The images document the areas of Harlem and Manhattan during the height of the civil rights movement, capturing everyday scenes of black existence as well as moments of black awakening and protest, including the forces of Black Pride and Black Power.

Many of the works are in colour – a contrast from his earlier work and reflect Cole’s realisation that the systemic exclusion and segregation he had experienced in South Africa was also prevalent in America. In his own words “it wasn’t any better: there was no freedom”.


Harlem, New York, c.1970


Black Panthers in the Park. Harlem, New York, 1968

Harlem, New York, 1969


New York, c.1970

ernest Cole: A Partial Timeline

A timeline of significant dates from Ernest Cole’s lifetime, with reference to key events in the civil rights movements of South Africa and America.

21 March 1940
Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole is born in a black freehold township in Transvaal, a former province in the Northwest of South Africa, incorporating Pretoria city.
The National Party of South Africa come to power and institute policies of white supremacy and racial segregation, formalising the start of the apartheid regime.
17 May 1954
The US Supreme Court delivers its verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violates the 14th amendment of the Constitution.
August 1955
Emmett Till, a 14 year-old African American, is abducted, tortured and lynched in the state of Mississippi. The brutality of his murder and the acquittal of his killers highlights the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States and particularly the racist Jim-Crow laws enforcing segregation in the Southern United States.
1 December 1955
The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Rosa Parks, an African American woman, is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white man. Shortly after her arrest, a boycott of the city’s bus company begins, led by a young Martin Luther King Jr.
Kole quits school after the implementation of the Bantu Education Act in South Africa that brings the apartheid system into schools, limiting the level of education black children can have access to.
Kole takes on a freelance role at Drum – a South African magazine for black audiences. He is later appointed to the role of Assistant Picture Editor. It is around this time that Kole starts his photographic documentation of the black lived experience under apartheid, which will eventually become the basis for his photobook House of Bondage.
Kole leaves Drum to work as a freelance photographer. The same year, his family are displaced as their home is demolished by South African apartheid authorities.
Circa 1960s
Kole officially changes his surname to Cole. He reclassifies his racial labelling from ‘black’ to ‘coloured’, which allows him certain liberties, including the right to obtain a passport and leave the country.
28 August 1963
An estimated 250,000 people participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest demonstration in the history of the nation’s capital and the most significant display of the civil rights movement’s strength. At the end of the march Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his I Have A Dream speech.
15 September 1963
White supremacists bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during a Sunday service; four young African American girls are killed in the explosion. The bombing took place just days after the federal government had ordered the integration of Alabama’s school system.
2 July 1964
American President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law during a televised ceremony.
21 February 1965
Malcom X is assassinated in Harlem, New York. Following his murder, his bestselling book The Autobiography of Malcolm X popularises his ideas, particularly among Black youth, and lays the foundations for the Black Power movement.
9 May 1966
Cole leaves South Africa, smuggling his negatives with him. He travels to Paris, London and then Copenhagen and eventually arrives in New York on 10 September 1966.
October 1966
The Black Panther Party, a black power political organisation, is founded in Oakland, California.
Once in New York, Cole takes his photographs to Magnum who support him in publishing House of Bondage, chronicling the horrors of apartheid. The book is published first by Random House in the US and a year later in the UK.
House of Bondage is banned in South Africa and Cole is stripped of his citizenship, making him effectively stateless. He will never return to South Africa. The same year he secures a grant from the Ford Foundation to document the lives of African Americans in urban and rural areas in the Southern American states.
4 April 1968
Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. His murder radicalises many moderate African American activists, and fuels the growth of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party.
1969 - 1971
Cole obtains a visa for Sweden and spends extensive periods of time in Stockholm. He builds a connection with the Tiofoto photography collective, who agree to represent him. One of the founders of Tiofoto, Rune Hassner, interviews Cole for Sweden’s national public television broadcaster (SVT) in 1969. This is the only existing footage of Cole speaking on camera and features in the exhibition.
Mid-1970s onwards
Cole lives through periods of homelessness in New York and most of his photographic possessions are lost.
11 February 1990
After 27 years, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela is released from prison – a moment of hope, endurance and defiance, signifying a plausible end to apartheid.
19 February 1990
Ernest Cole dies of pancreatic cancer in New York City, aged 49. A memorial service is held in New York at The Church of Heavenly Rest but his ashes return to South Africa with his mother and sister and are buried at the Mamelodi cemetery.
Apartheid laws and racist restrictions are repealed and power-sharing talks begin between the South African state and 16 anti-apartheid groups.
South Africa holds desegregated elections - the African National Congress win by a landslide and Nelson Mandela is inaugurated as the country’s first Black president.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission - chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu - begins hearings on human rights abuses committed during the apartheid era by former government and liberation movements.
The Hassellad Foundation publish Ernest Cole: Photographer.
60,000 of Cole’s negatives are found in a safety deposit box in a bank vault in Sweden. In addition to colour images taken during his time in America, this stash contained unpublished photographs and original contact sheets for the House of Bondage project.
House of Bondage is republished by Aperture.
Aperture publish Ernest Cole: The True America, sharing Cole’s photographic work depicting Black lives in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Autograph presents the first exhibition of the work. 

part of the exhibition

Ernest Cole: A Lens In Exile

13 Jun – 12 Oct 2024
The first exhibition of Ernest Cole's photographs documenting New York City during the height of the civil rights movement in America.

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See more work by ernest cole

Visit Ernest Cole: House of Bondage at The Photographers’ Gallery. The exhibition revisits his ground-breaking project House of Bondage, which revealed the violence and injustice of apartheid to the world and is considered one of the most significant photobooks of the twentieth century. 14 June to 22 September 2024.

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Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile is realised in collaboration with Magnum Photos and the Ernest Cole Family Trust.
With thanks to Mark and James Sanders.

Banner image: Ernest Cole, Harlem, New York, 1969 [detail]. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos.

Images on page: All images © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos 1) Self-portrait of photographer Ernest Cole, 1967. 2) Ernest Cole, Harlem, New York, c.1970. 3) Ernest Cole, Black Panthers in the Park. Harlem, New York, 1968. 4) Ernest Cole, New York, c.1970. 5) Ernest Cole, Harlem, New York, 1969. 6) Ernest Cole, New York, c.1970 [detail]. 7) Ernest Cole: Doornfontein railway station in rush hour. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words. South Africa,1960s.