New Haven

Constance Stuart Larrabee

The English-born photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee is known for two distinct bodies of work: her black and white prints of South Africa’s tribal people (Zulu, Ndebele, Lovedu, Swazi, Sotho, Transkei, and Bushmen)—produced in the ’30s and ’40s—and her Life magazine–style photojournalism in which she documented the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. This recent retrospective also included lesser-known pictures produced after Larrabee moved to America in 1949. Among this group of photographs, two works stand out as emblematic of her postwar style, which was characterized by a subtle interplay between the natural and the manipulated: a photograph of a glass whale from the series of works for Steuben Glass (Tale of the Whale, Steuben Glass, 1959) and a picture of a jumping dog named Fearless (Fearless on the Chester, 1977). These rather sentimental late works bear witness to the sharp decrease in Larrabee’s creative power that attended her move to the United States. But as whole the exhibition is undoubtedly of historical interest. Many of her photographs, all of which were taken with a Rolleiflex camera, were newly printed from the negatives for this occasion.

Throughout her long career, Larrabee aspired to take “straight” pictures, but there was little about her photographs to support a documentary reading of her work. Whether she photographed Italian civilians captured by Allied soldiers, a French woman punished for fraternizing with German soldiers by having her hair shorn, or a blind Basuto man sitting with his dog against a barren, cracked wall, Larrabee invested her subjects with timeless poetic significance. Allying herself with what she called “the beauty of design,” she embraced the Modernist credo of form equals content. In her photographs, she spoke of the power (or weakness) of humanity, bypassing more immediate social, economic, or political conditions as if they were completely irrelevant to her art.

Nowhere in this exhibition is this quality more evident than in Larrabee’s optimistic depictions of South Africa’s tribal people, some of them taken during the visit of the British Royals in 1947. (Larrabee joined the royal tour, and while traveling throughout the country aboard a train painted white—believe it or not—photographed tribal people dressed up for the occasion in their native costumes.) Larrabee’s photographs present black Africans as muscular, noble, and beautiful. She captures them in the midst of their ritualized activities, or tranquilly at rest, in a seemingly symbiotic relationship to their environment. Her subjects occasionally look straight into the camera, their eyes displaying a mixture of bewilderment and indifference, but mostly, and most tellingly, they glance away from the photographer.

Viewing Larrabee’s South African pictures today, it is tempting to assume that times have changed and the social and political concerns of today do not apply to yesterday. Though at the time racism had yet to be supported by a large institutional network, given the herding of the indigenous peoples of South Africa into “homelands,” the extremity of the Afrikaner brand of white suprematism, and Larrabee’s insistence on the documentary value of her work, it is rather difficult to comprehend how the photographer managed to separate her subject matter from its charged social and political contexts. Yet, though Larrabee’s response may seem inconceivable today, in many ways it was typical of a surprising number of artists of her generation, who when directly confronted with grave sociopolitical problems tended to retreat into formal concerns. Two examples from the photographic arena immediately spring to mind: Brassaï’s humorous photographs of Picasso and his friends in his studio at the rue des Grands Augustins, taken during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and Cecil Beaton’s elegant postwar London photographs, including one of a fashion model in front of a bombed-out ruin. Like them, Larrabee allied herself with the formalist issues of her time, which kept her from having to address the broader implications of art and artmaking, and, perhaps, from confronting what stood on the other side of the camera’s lens.

Marek Bartelik