"South Africa 1936-1949: Photographs by Constance Stuart Larabee" Sept. 20, 1998-Feb. 28, 1999, at the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.
"Constance Stuart Larrabee: Life in Wartime, 1936-1945," Aug. 15-Oct. 18, 1998, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
"The Face of Tangier Island: Photographs by Constance Stuart Larabee," Aug. 29, 1998-Mar. 14, 1999, at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Mill St., Navy Point, St. Michael's, Md.
Over a long career, the photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee has captured both ordinary and extraordinary moments of 20th century history. She has operated a portrait studio in Pretoria, in South Africa, served as a war correspondent in World War II, chronicled the travails of life under South African apartheid and photographed the maritime community on Tangier Island, Va. The work of this pioneering woman photographer is the subject of not one but three exhibitions in (and near) Washington, D.C. -- two of which are still on view.
Larrabee's work is characterized by a sensitivity that manages to convey the atmosphere of each situation. A fierce photojournalist, She is nevertheless able to make people comfortable in her presence.
Born in England in 1914, Larrabee grew up in Pretoria and began taking pictures at the age of 10. After studying in London and Munich, she opened her Pretoria studio when she was 21. Between 1936 and 1949, she took thousands of pictures of life in her adopted country. The exhibition at the National Museum of African Art covers this period.
Larrabee photographed Zulu men on the road home from the mines, and groups of people waiting for the train from Ixopo to Durban or Johannesburg. She photographed a day in the life of a Malay market woman setting up her vegetables, and a young Afrikaner woman returning home from church.
Her images reflect the distinct beauty of the land and its geographical extremes, as well as the human exploitation of the South African mines. She captured the jazz of the city and the grace of Ndebele women painting intricate geometric designs on the walls of their homes.
For the South African magazine Libertas, she covered the preparations for and the arrival of King George, Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The images are candid, hopeful and organic.
During World War II, Larrabee became the first female South African war correspondent. "Life in Wartime 1936-45" at the Corcoran Gallery traces the results of this part of her life. After the South African army joined the British, Larrabee went to Cairo en route to the front lines in France and Italy. Traveling through the European countryside with a British war artist, the two aided each other in capturing images to share with people back home.
The exhibition demonstrates her tremendous access to areas ravaged by the war. Larrabee photographed intimate moments, like the displacement of an Italian family after their town was destroyed in a bombing. She photographed allied soldiers awaiting treatment in a make-shift army hospital, and captured the simplicity and innocence of children that she encountered along the way. She even photographed Adolph Hitler. The exhibition also includes her correspondences, newspaper articles and a few photographs of Larrabee herself.
Returning home again, Larrabee found herself among the generation of writers and artists who reveled in the beauty of South Africa's legacy as a country of many peoples. Her photographs of the rural Umzimkulu Valley and the residents of Natal, Transkei and the Northern and Eastern Transvaal illustrate some of the complexity of relations and cultural diversity in South Africa. She collaborated with Alan Paton, the author of Cry the Beloved Country (1949), to document the beautiful landscapes of the Natal countryside for his book. Simultaneously, the National Party of South Africa was developing the racist separation policy of apartheid (1948-1990), which she recorded for Libertas.
Some 50 years later, Larrabee, a United States citizen since 1953, resides with her husband, Colonel Stuart Loop Larrabee, in Chestertown, Md., where she continues to pursue photography and breeds Norwich and Norfolk terriers.
TOSHA GRANTHAM is an artist and writer who lives in Washington, D.C. She is a contributing writer for the Washington Review of Literature and the Arts.