Southern Africa, 1936-1949: Photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee

at the Harold Washington Library Center, through June 9

Paying too much attention, as the curators of this exhibit have, to the Bauhaus influence on Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914-2000) may make you miss some of the historical lessons in her work. True, she was a modernist photographer concerned with strong, clean design, sharp definition, elegance, and experimentation with unusual portrait angles. She also produced images of southern Africa (made up of South Africa plus three British protectorates) in a key transitional period–at a moment when everything was about to change–with sympathy but without any romantic or sentimental tinge.

These 79 silver gelatin prints record cultures on the edge of extinction. The first half of the exhibit, arranged chronologically, is filled with images of the rural and tribal world of black Africans such as the San, Zulu, and Ndebele, living outside Johannesburg and Pretoria. Larrabee’s renderings also document the modern industrial demotic cultures, both native and white, in the cities–destroyed when the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948, instituting the repressive policies of apartheid, including the forcible relocation of blacks.

The daughter of a Scottish mining engineer and his British wife, Larrabee grew up in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. In 1933 she enrolled at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography in London and later worked as an apprentice to portrait photographer Madame Yevonde. She moved to Munich two years after that to pursue her studies at the Bavarian State Institute for Photography, where she encountered the Bauhaus tradition. In 1936 Larrabee returned to Pretoria to open a portrait studio. Widely recognized a few years later as one of the top photographers and photojournalists in southern Africa, she was the first accredited woman photographer war correspondent; throughout World War II she covered action in Egypt, Italy, and France for the South African journal Libertas. After the war, she emigrated to the United States, married, and lived in Chestertown, Maryland, where she continued to photograph until her death.

Segregation and wage discrimination against blacks had been a part of life in southern Africa since the beginning of the 20th century. However, as Larrabee shows, this segregation was something different from apartheid. In Camp During the Nagmaal (Holy Communion) in Bronkhorstspruit (Transvaal, 1947), a white child performs the same actions as a black man seated in the same clearing, the two brought together in a rural setting under a shared religious rubric. And in Workers at the Iron and Steel Industrial Corporation (ISCOR) Plant (Near Pretoria, Transvaal, 1937), two black men and one white man in a factory work side by side. Producing steel, they also produce a community, which may have barriers but is not “apart.” Technique and history merge as the subjects’ nonchalance and the relaxed glance of Larrabee’s camera together reveal a segregated world that still held some hope–which apartheid abolished. Held at chest level with a top-mounted viewfinder, Larrabee’s Rolleiflex camera allows the photographer to look down rather than directly at the subject. In the ease of these images, we see the moment when southern Africa could have gone either way, to apartheid or integration.

With World War II, especially in southern Africa, came an adjusted system of segregation and race discrimination suited to the needs of the industrial boom. The government maintained official policies keeping blacks’ wages low and restricting where they could live. But that same government also made changes permitting many black and brown laborers to take semiskilled positions previously reserved for whites. These more relaxed policies contributed to a massive increase in African urbanization and the beginnings of black labor-union achievements.

Both a documentarian and a portraitist, Larrabee did have a restrained Bauhaus-influenced aesthetic. Her interest in geometric compositions comes across in tight-cropped close-ups of high rituals and unusual angles brought to bear on household chores. Her liberal politics show in her attention to her subjects’ expressions: their smiles, smirks, inquisitive stares, and straight-on challenges meet the viewer in almost every shot. After 1948, the way of life she captured abruptly disappeared. Whites were even prohibited from traveling to many black reserve and shantytown areas.

Rejecting the emotionalism of the earlier pictorialist tradition, with its softened focus and blurred boundaries, Larrabee draws on an as-is aesthetic. Here are images of the Ndebele, whose striking geometric architectural designs and beadwork might have influenced Larrabee as much as any Bauhaus course. Here are portraits and documents: Blind Sotho Miner and His Wife, the Lovedu people, a hawker approaching a taxi near Maseru in 1947, a San girl drinking from an ostrich egg.

Where her technique and a particular moment in history truly come together is in three photographs of Johannesburg from 1948. In Street Photographer and Jeppe Street, South Africa might be the south side of Chicago: we see an urban black population going about its business in a well-established community. A man seated on a trash can is uncannily familiar, linking Jeppe Street and South Halsted. After these come some of Larrabee’s final images: the shantytowns and apartheid townships, steel buildings, dirt roads, houses made from discarded containers stacked atop one another.

Between 1946 and 1948 photographer Wayne F. Miller (whose work was exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center last winter) produced images of Chicago’s south side steeped in the arresting beauty of the everyday. Like Larrabee, Miller had a noninvasive, documentarian style that evoked the mundane, the hopeful, the sorrowful, whether his subjects were working or playing: here are rituals and ceremonies, congregations and greetings, shopping and conversation, the simple gestures of leaning against a storefront or reading a newspaper in bright sunlight. Such demotic images come from both photographers, both documenting a black urban society at almost the same historical moment.

Yet Miller’s subjects, unlike Larrabee’s, rarely look back at the camera. In her Conversation (Sophiatown, Johannesburg, 1948), a straightforward group shot, three men on the left look toward one another, ignoring Larrabee and discussing the newspaper or the price of fish-and-chips, while two boys to the right stare at the camera. The taller one stands, hands together, looking almost embarrassed as the shorter–hands behind his back, hat too big–squints back a challenge. Miller observes, hardly noticed by his subjects, while Larrabee is both outside and engaged in the moment, often an active, acknowledged part of it.

This returned gaze is not ubiquitous in the exhibit, but it demands a certain attention. Our eyes meet the subjects’ in various ways: the stare from a doorway in Zulu Girl and Children (Near Ixopo, Natal, 1949), a plaintive pause as a black man finishes dressing in Swazi Man Waiting for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England During Their Visit to Southern Africa (Swaziland, 1947), the open gaze of Sotho Herd Boy Near Maseru (Basutoland, 1941). It’s as if southern Africa were looking at Chicago.

Another difference hinges on the distinct histories of Chicago and Johannesburg. Miller’s composed, everyday, never presumptuous photographs reveal one of the largest cultural transformations in American history, brought about by the mass postwar migration of blacks to Chicago, initiating a renaissance in the city’s arts and culture. Larrabee’s tight, warm images show fellow human beings living a life about to be torn out from under them. As she once said, “My generation–we see ourselves as the enlightened South Africa.” But the optimism her documents reveal proved too easily defeated.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.