Part two | The mystery of Ernest Cole’s archive

Although the South African photographer’s previously unseen work is now being released, the Hasselblad Foundation in Sweden continues to hold on to disputed original prints.

Three decades after he died penniless and alone in New York, Ernest Cole’s historic archive of unseen work produced during exile is finally coming to light. His nephew Leslie Matlaisane, who heads the Cole family foundation, is fighting an uphill battle with the Hasselblad Foundation for the return of more than 500 archival prints that are worth millions of rands. The foundation stubbornly refuses to let go of them. 

This is the second of a two-part series on what happened to Cole after he left South Africa, how his archive appeared in a Swedish bank vault and why the Hasselblad Foundation will not release the last of his material in their possession.

It is the afternoon of 10 April 2017. On a table in a boardroom at the offices of the Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) in Stockholm, Sweden, sit three safety deposit boxes waiting for a visitor from South Africa to collect. It will soon emerge that inside these boxes lies a treasure trove of archival material relating to the long-lost and little-seen work of seminal photographer Ernest Cole. 

Related article:

The contents include about 60 000 negatives, colour transparencies, letters, notes, a 16mm film roll and a reel-to-reel sound recording that when properly examined will begin to shed light on what Cole had been focusing his ever-curious camera lens on during his first decades of exile. This was after his departure from South Africa in 1966 and before his eventual death from pancreatic cancer in a New York hospital in February 1990.  

On that same afternoon, elsewhere in Stockholm, a tired and hopeful but somewhat suspicious Leslie Matlaisane is handed a suitcase by his Swedish lawyer, Ulf Bergquist, in Bergquist’s office. 

Matlaisane, Cole’s nephew and the head of the Ernest Cole Foundation, had arrived in the Swedish capital the previous day, on a ticket paid for by the SEB. While he has some idea of what is about to happen, he is still unsure of what he will find in the suitcase and what awaits him at the bank. 

Bergquist has a letter from Christina Blackman, the executive director of the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg, which informs Matlaisane that “when Rune Hassner became the chief curator of the Hasselblad Foundation’s photographic division, Hasselblad Centre in Gothenburg, he arranged so that the material was deposited there, to be kept safe and in good climate conditions until it could be transferred to the inheritors of Ernest Cole.” 

Matlaisane has spent much of the previous year compiling, with the assistance of former Hasselblad Foundation curator Gunilla Knape, a list of the various institutions around the world that have archival material relating to his uncle’s work. It includes the Hasselblad Foundation, which is said to have several hundred vintage prints made by Cole in its possession, including around 500 that the foundation claims it purchased for its collection, and which it maintains belong to the foundation and are not part of the material it is obligated to hand over to the Cole Foundation. 

When Matlaisane opens the suitcase in his lawyer’s office, he is at first pleased to see that it includes a number of vintage prints and more than 450 contact sheets for photographs in his uncle’s groundbreaking 1967 book about life under apartheid, House of Bondage. However, the disputed vintage prints are not in the suitcase. Matlaisane is unhappy with Bergquist and wants to know where they are. After all, they are potentially worth about £1 million on the open market, a not insignificant sum for Cole’s heirs, who lead modest lives in Pretoria, where Cole grew up. 

Bergquist has another document for Matlaisane, a receipt for him to sign, acknowledging that he has “received all material belonging to the estate of Ernest Cole, that has been held in Sweden by SEB Bank and the Hasselblad Foundation”. Matlaisane, his guard now up and realising that his visit will not be the end of this bureaucratic spiderweb of a story, refuses to sign the receipt unless an addendum acknowledging the absence of the prints is included.  

The relationship between Matlaisane and the state-appointed lawyer is already strained following Bergquist’s refusal to have his client’s stay in Sweden extended. Matlaisane had wanted to go to Gothenburg to ask the Hasselblad administrators how they came to be in possession of his uncle’s archive material and who was responsible for depositing further material into the SEB vaults. 

Before they leave for the bank, Matlaisane asks some pointed questions of his lawyer, wanting to know who has been paying for the SEB deposit boxes and if there are any records of who opened the account. Bergquist tells him that “nobody has been paying” and that SEB “says they cannot find the contract of who deposited it”. When he asks if Bergquist has ever heard of a bank so magnanimous as to simply hand over the deposits in its possession, he is told that SEB “didn’t dare just throw it away. They have paid your travel, they have paid my work, because they don’t want somebody from mass media saying, ‘You threw away important cultural material.’” 

With less than 24 hours left before he is scheduled to fly back to South Africa, Matlaisane is in no mood to spend precious time arguing with Bergquist. Together they make their way to the SEB, where they are greeted by two young, mid-level employees with little knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the three safety deposit boxes. When Matlaisane tries to ask questions, he is told that they cannot help him and he is not permitted to speak to anyone who might. 

At first glance, Matlaisane is amazed at what he sees in the boxes. There are tens of thousands of negatives, some from his uncle’s work in apartheid-era South Africa and the images he published in House of Bondage. But the majority is work thought to have been lost, concentrating on Cole’s projects for the Ford Foundation on the black American experience in the rural south and urban centres of the United States. 

As he flies back to South Africa later that night, Matlaisane is overcome with hope and expectation at what a closer inspection of these boxes will reveal. But he is still infuriated at the Hasselblad Foundation’s refusal to part with the hundreds of vintage prints in its archive. 

The Hasselblad Foundation

Matlaisane has never stood outside the Hasselblad Foundation’s modest office at 8 Ekmansgatan in Gothenburg, which was built in 1989. He has never laid eyes on the benevolently beaming statue of one of its founders, Victor Hasselblad, which stands in a corner of the nearby Gotaplatsen Square. 

To Matlaisane and the Cole foundation, the Hasselblad Foundation is a frustratingly obstinate corporation that is thwarting their quest to return his uncle’s prints to their rightful owners. Their only communication with Hasselblad’s employees has been officious and obfuscating. But for Sweden and the city of Gothenburg, Hasselblad represents a global success story of local industry and innovation. It is an empire built on the fairy tale love story of a birdwatching and photography enthusiast and his equally camera-crazy wife, Hasselblad’s founding couple Victor and Erna. 

Hasselblad’s family were originally haberdashers, but soon began to cash in on the growing popularity of cameras and related photographic materials in the 1880s. In 1937, Viktor and Erna set up a camera shop in Gothenburg, where they developed the highly sought after medium format cameras that bear the family name, first for the Swedish Air Force during World War II and later as the compact post-war cameras of choice for professional photographers around the world. 

It was with a Hasselblad that the first photographs of men on the moon were taken in 1969, making the cameras, as the company likes to say, “the most famous on and off the Earth”. The couple sold the company in 1978. The foundation, which is independent of the company that still makes the popular cameras, was established after Viktor’s death the following year. 

The foundation has deep pockets, long-established roots in Swedish industry and the world of photography, and the support of many of the most recognisable and lauded names working in the medium today. The winners of its coveted 1 million Swedish krona (around R2 million) annual award have included pretty much every major name in contemporary photography since 1980, when it was first won by Cole’s self-confessed photographic hero Henri Cartier-Bresson. 

The foundation’s record of supporting important and innovative photographic work through awards and research grants does not make it an obvious candidate for the villain in this story. However, while Cole would have been well aware of the Hasselblad camera, the foundation did not exist at the time he was in Sweden, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. How then did prints of the work he smuggled out of South Africa – whose visceral evidence of the cheapness of the black body revealed the inhumanity and inequities of apartheid to much of the world for the first time – end up in the archive of the building at 8 Ekmansgatan? 

The most likely answer we have is that during his many trips to Sweden, Cole became close to Hassner, who was then part of a photographic collective called Tito Fotograferna. The collective held an exhibition that included Cole’s House of Bondage photographs in the late 1960s. Hassner maintained a close, lifelong friendship with Cole and, as indicated in the letter handed to Matlaisane in Bergquist’s office, Cole had asked him to look after a selection of his images and negatives. These were included in the suitcase his nephew took delivery of in 2017. Hassner had deposited this material in the archive of the Hasselblad Foundation when he became its curator in 1992. 

Hassner died in 2003 and so was never asked any further questions about the Cole material. And the disputed vintage prints were not mentioned in Hasselblad’s 2017 correspondence. When Matlaisane began to question the whereabouts of the documentation proving that Hasselblad had bought the prints, Bergquist replied that the foundation had said “that they don’t have them. If you want to litigate about who is the owner of the retained material, I’m not going to litigate that one. That you’ll have to do.” 

Related article:

For almost three years, Matlaisane and the Cole Foundation have been engaged in a stop-start legal battle with the Hasselblad Foundation to return the vintage prints to Cole’s heirs. This has proven prohibitively expensive. The Cole Foundation has had to hire Swedish lawyers at great cost, funded by the sporadic sale of Cole’s work. 

Under Swedish law, the burden falls on litigants to prove ownership. So while the Hasselblad Foundation has said it can prove the purchase of the disputed prints, it is not required to produce any such proof. Rather, it is Cole’s family who must – impossibly, given the ramshackle nature and lack of proper records of the photographer’s archive, and his itinerant hand-to-mouth existence in exile – prove with documentation that they are the rightful owners of the work. 

When approached by New Frame, Blackman would only say about the litigation that “Stiftelsen Hasselblad Center is the documented owner of the photographic prints in question. According to Swedish law, Stiftelsen and its board of directors have a fiduciary duty in relation to its assets. It may be added that Stiftelsen incurs costs for the storage, etc of the prints. Stiftelsen has in replies to legal counsel for the Cole family requested that legal grounds and evidence for the Cole family’s alleged ownership are provided. Grounds and evidence have never been presented.” 

It seems petty to mention the cost incurred to store and maintain the prints, as one assumes the foundation spends the same money storing and maintaining the many prints by other photographers in its collection that are not under dispute. Meanwhile, the Cole Foundation has once again run out of money and Matlaisane says “we have suspended the legal process to pursue the Hasselblad Foundation due to financial constraints”. 

1971: Photo credit: The Ernest Cole Foundation.

And so the material remains in the archive at 8 Ekmansgatan, where visiting researchers can ask to see it and, under supervision, page through the vintage prints that Cole produced. 

David Goldblatt, when he won the Hasselblad Award in 2006, asked to see the foundation’s Cole holdings. He told The New York Times newspaper that he “was agape paging through the images”, saying “they can’t lie in a vault”. Shortly before his death in 2018, Goldblatt was asked about the dispute between Hasselblad and the Cole Foundation. He replied that “whatever has been found of Ernest Cole’s work should be returned to Ernest Cole’s family unless the holder can demonstrate evidence of purchase”. This is a slight but significant change in position that seems to support the Hasselblad Foundation’s claim to the vintage prints. 

No other winners of the Hasselblad Award have commented on the matter. Neither has anyone involved with other organisations such as Magnum Photos in the US, which is aware of the case, spoken out against the foundation or made representations to Hasselblad on behalf of the Cole family. Representatives of the Swedish government in South Africa have refused to comment on a civil case that has yet to be resolved.

What’s in the boxes? 

When Matlaisane returned to South Africa, he began to examine the contents of the suitcase and the three safety deposit boxes more carefully with the help of the Library of Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

In the end, 14 000 of the around 60 000 negatives covered Cole’s work in South Africa. The remainder were of his work for the Ford Foundation in the US – commissions that were intended to focus on the black urban experience and the life of black workers and families in the rural south. Strangely, there were no photographs of Cole’s time in Sweden, despite his many trips there. The Ernest Cole Foundation entered into an agreement with Magnum to scan the negatives and make them available to the public. Earlier this year, it began to release the previously unseen Cole material. 

These photos have put paid to the idea that Cole, overcome by the acclaim for his House of Bondage work and embittered at the harshness of his life in the US, abandoned his photographic passions. What they show instead is the keen curiousity of a young, singular photographer who had escaped the oppression and violence of apartheid South Africa. One who found himself confronted by the very different, new expressions and fights for freedom taking place on the streets of New York and simultaneously, the depressing evidence of familiar racial segregation and inequality still visible in the early post-Civil Rights era rural south. 

Related article:

Cole was fascinated by the style and powerful exuberance displayed by those embroiled in the chaotic ideological fights erupting in the self-styled beacon of democracy that was the US from the wild years of 1968 to the rise of the silent conservative moral majority under Richard Nixon in the 1970s. 

Like the images of Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks and other more recognised photographers of the era, Cole’s long-lost images capture the hopefulness and varieties of expression of the burgeoning Black Power and feminist movements on the streets of urban America at the time. They also reflect the harsh realities of poverty and racial inequality in the American countryside, which were all too depressingly familiar to an apartheid exile. He was also fascinated by the openness with which the apartheid taboo of sex was visible everywhere in Times Square, a world grittily and grimily portrayed in David Simon’s recent television series The Deuce

Cole’s images of this world of sex and sin increasingly became a major focus for him. But the results were never shown or published, and one can only imagine how he might have framed his experiences of this world against his apartheid background and his Catholic upbringing in Mamelodi. There is a lack of explanatory material surrounding these images and in the absence of knowing why Cole chose not to present them to the Ford Foundation or the public at large, they remain tantalising pieces of the puzzle that is Cole’s life and work in exile. 

As the negatives in the boxes are released, so will more and more work be undertaken to make sense of Cole’s work and legacy. Researchers and critics will be able to better place him in the broader history of photography, beyond the singular work of House of Bondage, which has deservedly secured his reputation thus far. Sadly, the planned 2017, 50th anniversary reissue of Cole’s seminal book was placed on hold as a result of the ongoing dispute with Hasselblad. 

The Hasselblad Foundation’s decision to stubbornly hang on to the vintage prints developed by Cole’s hand makes little sense other than as a demonstration of its power, a misguided move that is potentially damaging to the foundation’s benevolent reputation. Hasselblad cannot sell the prints while their ownership is under dispute, and it cannot make any money selling reproductions without the permission of Cole’s heirs. 

With no resources and little public championing of its cause, the Cole Foundation is left in limbo. On the one hand, it is grateful to generate an income for the family through the release of the unseen Cole material. On the other, it is being forced to spend that money on Swedish lawyers for the return of the last remaining pieces of Cole’s known archive. 

For Matlaisane, this battle is not about money but principle. “These are prints made by my uncle’s own hand and they form a fundamental part of his archive, which should be returned to his rightful heirs for safekeeping and the protection of his legacy. We are not wealthy people but we have a right to the material, which was lost, and to know that it is at home, where it belongs.” 

If, as the Hasselblad Foundation maintains, it is committed to the preservation, celebration and development of photography, it should demonstrate this by what would ultimately be a small sacrifice for the foundation. But it would be a rightful and fitting gesture that would finally offer the Cole family closure in its decades-long fight for answers and recognition, and deliver reputational justice for a man who gave his life to the medium.  

Journalist and researcher James Sanders has investigated the fight over the Ernest Cole archive and assisted with the research for this article. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.