Ndebele Child, Near Pretoria, 1946. Picture: © Constance Stuart Larrabee (CSL) Collection, 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Smithsonian Institution (SI); and Conquering Hero, Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Constance: One Road to Take

The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914-2000)

Peter Elliott

Cantaloup Press

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Constance Stuart Larrabee, raised in South Africa from soon after her birth in Cornwall, is perhaps one of South Africa’s least known photographers,  and sadly so.  This may well be because she left little of her oeuvre here.  And that’s a pity, for the photographs that Elliott has chosen to illustrate this valuable addition to South African art and its artists show what an outstanding and evocative portraitist she was.  

After studying in England and Germany,  Larrabee returned to South Africa, where she had already shown that she was serious about photography when she was 16, taking the honours at the Pretoria Agricultural Show in 1930.  With an interlude when she left to cover the war in parts of Europe as South Africa’s only female war correspondent, she lived in South Africa from 1936 to 1949.  

The book chronicles three distinct periods of her life – all-encompassing Southern Africa, the war in France and Italy, and America (the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay in particular). It was in America that she married and lived for the greater part of her life, becoming eventually more a custodian of her prints and negatives and arranging exhibitions  (two in South Africa in 1979 and 1983) than continuing her photography.  

It is, of course, the section on Southern Africa that is the most compelling. It’s as diverse a portrait of the region  as one could wish for, in pre and early apartheid times  – the Ndebele, the Lovedu, Sotho, the Royal visit to Basutoland, the Xhosas, the San, the people of the Bo-Kaap, Afrikaans and the English speakers, poor whites,  Alan Paton and his milieu, the rural and urban, Johannesburg’s streets and townships, the miners and much more.  

It illustrates the divisions that existed in the country, and on which she was, perhaps normal for the time, silent on the disparity which even then was obvious.  A white woman photographing, though not exclusively, the black community, surely must have caused some interest and required some comment.   

Elliott has managed to unearth vast amounts of information about her, a woman who guarded her privacy and revealed little even in letters to her husband.  This book, he notes, is an attempt “to reveal her approach to photography and, and to unravel some of the stories she developed in order to keep her questioners at bay”. He writes of her confidence that she had “an eye” which enabled her to get just what she was after in just a handful of shots of one subject; he writes how Noel Coward said she never posed her subjects but allowed them to pose themselves,  resulting in just the right shot.  This is a book of both historical and social value,  comprehensive and well researched with detailed notes and sources,  and it makes one regret deeply that Larrabee, on her death, and with an estate of nearly two million dollars (in 2000), left her Southern African work to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and her American work to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, also in Washington, and a handful of other museums and institutions.   

There are, Elliott says, some prints in collections in South Africa – at the US Consulate General in Johannesburg and the Brenthurst Collection (a couple of dozen prints each),  while the Pretoria Art Museum and the SA National Gallery in Cape Town have a few.  Other prints that have come to light more recently are at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Bensusan  Photographic collection.  Although the online links that Elliott provides to the collections in the US are for researchers, hopefully, his book will stimulate more and more interest in the work of this amazing photographer.    

Elliott can be contacted at [email protected]