Through The Lens: Local Photography Books

Through The Lens: Local Photography Books

WORDS Robyn Alexander PHOTOS Courtesy of Aperture Ernest Cole Family Trust, Kwame Brathwaite and Philip Martin Gallery Los Angeles, Supplied

This trio of titles focused on the work of black and African photographers should be on every South African art lover’s wish list.

These three essential books – including the reissue of Ernest Cole’s iconic House of Bondage, one of
the publications that first revealed the true state of black life under South Africa’s apartheid regime – are pivotal to the history of black and African photography. Whether the medium is used to document injustice or contribute to a revolutionary aesthetic, these works showcase the versatility and richness of black and African photographic art – past and present.

Africa State of Mind

Edited by Ekow Eshun (Thames & Hudson, 2020)

“Here, then, is photography consciously defined by subjective experience,” writes curator and editor Ekow Eshun in Africa State of Mind, which heralds a fresh and polyvalent visual conversation about what it means to live in Africa today.

Featuring the work of more than 50 artists and more than 300 photographs, this overview of current photographic practice on the continent is divided into four sections, each introduced via a short essay by Eshun: “Hybrid Cities”, “Zones of Freedom”, “Myth and Memory”, and “Inner Landscapes”. The diverse selection of images features everything from urban nightlife in Joburg to vodun (voodoo) religion in Benin and Ghana’s LGBT+ community. In short, almost every page opens multiple strands of reflection about the physical, spiritual and emotional points of view of the continent’s denizens in the early 21st century.

Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful

Photographs by Kwame Brathwaite; essays by Tanisha C Ford and Deborah Willis (Aperture, 2019)

The reissued publication of House of Bondage (see below) includes a new chapter by Ernest Cole, originally entitled “Black Ingenuity”, of previously unpublished photographs that document the creation and enjoyment of music, dance, art and film that took place despite the best efforts of the apartheid regime.

And it’s this spirit of creative resistance that animates Kwame Brathwaite’s work: produced in the late 1950s and throughout the ’60s as part of the second Harlem Renaissance, his photography helped popularise the political slogan “Black Is Beautiful”. From luminous portraits of the Grandassa Models – a modelling troupe for black women, founded to challenge white beauty standards – to behind-the-scenes images of Harlem’s artistic community (including Miles Davis and Abbey Lincoln), this book offers a visually inspiring exploration of Brathwaite’s life and work. It also accompanies an acclaimed exhibition of his photographs that has been seen at a variety of art galleries across the US since 2019.

House of Bondage

Photographs and text by Ernest Cole; essays by Oluremi C Onabanjo, James Sanders and Mongane Wally Serote (Aperture, 2022)

When it was originally published in 1967, Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage was a visual alarm call regarding the brutal oppression and racism to which the black population of South Africa was being subjected under apartheid rule. It also became an icon of documentary photography the world over.

Born in 1940, Cole left South Africa in 1966 and smuggled his negatives out of the country; he thereafter became a “banned person” according to the apartheid state, and lived in the US and Sweden. This reissue of House of Bondage has been beautifully put together, and includes photographs that have never been seen before as well as contextualising essays. Cole’s images retain all their searing power – and even though well over 50 years have passed since they were taken, South Africa continues to grapple with the legacy of the horrors of apartheid. Part of the value of this book is to remind us why that is the case.

All three titles are distributed locally by Jonathan Ball Publishers, and can be ordered from independent bookshops.

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