Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Historical Documents become Aesthetic Objects: Ernest Cole at JAG


Given that JAG apparently boasts quite a sizeable collection of Ernest Cole photographs one has to wonder why the gallery hasn’t staged a Cole exhibition until now. This Cole exhibition presented the Hasselblad foundation’s collection. It’s a pity it’s not a retrospective, where one could view all his work including his commercial/journalistic work and his early beginnings – he had a camera from a young age. It would have also been interesting to see the photographs he took in the US too; fixated on mapping social inequality he photographed African Americans and the homeless while living there.

I missed the Cole exhibition in Cape Town awhile ago so this was the first time I saw a large collection of his work. Aside from the content it was the size of the images that initially struck me. They seemed inordinately small. Of course, these were standard dimensions for photographs of that era and conformed to photographers’ notion of their craft as journalistic. According to the curator of this exhibition, Gunille Knape, Cole had a very clear idea that his work belonged to this realm of production. The art historian Michael Fried suggests that photography’s transition from documentary mode to art can on a most basic level be observed through the changing dimensions of photographs. Photographs with an art sensibility are considerably larger, he posits.

Nevertheless it seems that Cole did employ visual devices particular to photography designed for display. Some of his images, particularly one that showed people moving across a barren landscape (I discuss it at some length in my review), are incredibly dark. As any one in the print media will know, dark photographs do not print well. And in fact this one would never have made it into a newspaper – which is why it would have been impossible for me to have run it with my review in the Sunday Indy.
According to Gunwille, it was fashionable in the seventies for photographers of a certain ilk to print dark photographs – it was a way of distinguishing their work from journalistic products. It also added drama to the image too. Certainly it is reminiscent of the use of chiaroscuro in painting.