Ernest Cole’s Lost American Photos From the 1960s and 1970s Published for the First Time

The True America by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust
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Born in 1940 in South Africa, photographer Ernest Cole is known for his early work detailing the horrors of apartheid. As South Africa's first Black freelance photographer, he was in a unique position to detail what was happening. But in 1966, he was labeled a “banned person” and fled the country.

His work as a photographer continued. He resettled in New York and, in 1967, published his landmark book of apartheid photos, House of Bondage. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, he traveled North America extensively and turned his lens toward the streets of Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, and New York, among others. It was a critical time in the United States, with the Civil Rights Movement peaking and tensions rising after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Based on his own experiences in South Africa, Cole was uniquely equipped to capture the moment, and now, for the first time, these images are being published. The True America, published by Aperture, features 260 of Cole's images from that period. The work reflects the contradictions between a newfound hope and freedom that Cole experienced in the United States alongside the systemic racism and injustice he witnessed.

As Cole released very few images during his lifetime, these photographs were thought to be lost. Luckily, they were among over 60,000 negatives recovered in Sweden in 2017. Cole had regularly spent time in Sweden collaborating with a photography collective before he eventually ceased the profession sometime after 1972. In the aftermath, his negatives had gone missing until well after his death. Upon their discovery, the work was returned to the Ernest Cole Family Trust.

The first publication sharing this work, The True America, features a preface by film director Raoul Peck, whose documentary on Cole will soon be released, and texts by journalist James Sanders and scholar Leslie M. Wilson. The book is now available via Aperture, Bookshop, and Amazon.

The True America is the first time that photographer Ernest Cole's photographs of America have been published.

The True America by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

The South African photographer traveled the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The True America by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

The True America by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

His street photography shows the hopefulness and heartache that Cole witnessed as a Black man in America at that time.

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

The project was thought to be lost, but the negatives were among the 60,000 discovered in a Swedish bank in 2017.

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Street photography by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

The True America by Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Untitled, 1968–71; from Ernest Cole: The True America (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ernest Cole Family Trust

Now, Aperture has published the work in full, making Cole's legacy available to a wider public.

The True America by Ernest Cole

 

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Aperture.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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