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A woman's stark images from the front Photography: Through her camera, Constance Stuart Larrabee captured, in turn, the horror, heartbreak and heroics of war. Now her photos are on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.


Constance Stuart Larrabee, a petite woman with white hair, sits in a comfortable upholstered chair in her Chestertown home reading a newspaper clipping written half a century before and half a world away.

"It says: 'A friend once told her, she'd never get near the front lines. But she's seen more of the front than any other woman.' "

Larrabee leans back in her chair. She's 84 now, and it's a little bit of an effort for her to read aloud. But she's obviously still very proud of what they said about her back then.

"It's true," she says softly. "The photos I took were sort of my contribution to the war effort, you see."

Constance Stuart Larrabee is a war photographer, you see.

Between July 1944 and March 1945, Larrabee, a young English portrait photographer raised in South Africa and barely 30 years old at the time, followed the Allied armies as they marched through France and Italy, liberating millions of people benumbed by years of tyranny and war.

She was one of only a handful of women who were photographers during the war, and one of the few photographers of either sex to spend most of her time within a stone's throw of the fighting. While she was at it, she also managed to create one of the great photographic documents of the war.

Larrabee, whose art is the subject of three retrospective exhibitions at Washington-area museums this fall, had a gift for recording "the terrible reality and earnestness" of war worthy of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady -- or Steven Spielberg, whose recent film "Saving Private Ryan" is one of the photographer's favorites.

"It was a wonderful film. I sat through the whole thing not speaking," Larrabee said during a recent interview at her Chestertown home. "I was so into it."

Didn't the violence bother her?

"Oh, no," said the former war photographer. "That's life. That's what it was like."

Larrabee's war photographs, on display at Washington's Corcoran Gallery through Oct. 15, chronicle a circumscribed but telling slice of the century's most destructive war -- the brief moment of optimism immediately following the liberation, before the world discovered the horror of the death camps and the terror of the bomb.

She had a unique gift for translating that experience into images that everyone could understand.

"I was hired by a South African newspaper to photograph the South African troops in the army," she said.

In fact, Larrabee went well beyond her assignment. She photographed the American, French, British and Canadian troops as well as her South African countrymen. She photographed the civilians the soldiers met on the way to Germany, and she photographed the devastated villages, towns and cities in their path.

An important event

"I was with a press group and we were driving through a town in southern France when I looked up and saw a woman who was so happy to see us she flung her windows open as we passed," Larrabee recalled. "I looked through the camera and took the picture, just like that. Because I knew I had seen something important."

Another picture taken in the town of Luxeuil-les-Bains in November 1944 shows American soldiers perched on a tank as it passes below a balcony that jubilant French civilians have festooned with the tricolor flag and banners.

Larrabee had just returned from London, then under attack by German V-1 and V-2 rockets.

"Back to the front -- to the shellfire, the rattle of machine guns, the clatter of tanks -- and back to the mud," she scribbled in one of the notes she recorded for each picture.

Larrabee wasn't permitted to keep a diary at the front, but her photo notes, which she sent back to South Africa with her undeveloped film, formed the spine of a narrative that she was able to reconstruct when she returned home.

One day, for example, a French officer drove her group of photographers to Belfort, near Alsace-Lorraine.

"Passed razed villages and broken bridges, foxholes and shell holes, ambulances and jeeps and soldiers burying their dead," she wrote. "We watched men setting up guns in the rain and the mud. A big move is on."

On Nov. 21, two experiences indelibly impressed themselves in her memory.

"Several correspondents and I went up to Hericourt early this morning," she noted. "It was freezing cold in the jeep and a couple of pale rays of sunshine helped warm us. At the front the Germans spotted us and began shelling. It was the first time I have been under direct fire."

Later that day, her party came upon a field full of German corpses frozen in odd positions.

"I was looking at dead people for the first time," she wrote. "I felt sad and sick as I photographed them. Discarded, unfortunate men, they were no longer gallant soldiers. The shoes had been pulled off their feet."

Though she had been in combat for months by then, the sight was deeply disturbing.

Before the invention of photography, painters had the last word on what war looked like. They painted monumental panoramas with heroic figures striking impossibly stylized poses.

The camera stripped war of its romantic illusions. Brady's pioneering Civil War pictures shocked Americans with the grim reality of blasted landscapes strewn with corpses.

"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," wrote a New York Times editorialist in 1862.

Photo greats

So did Larrabee. During those heady final months of the war, she met almost all the famous photographers of the day -- Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, David Seymour.

"They were all very experienced; I wasn't," she recalled.

Still, she never thought of herself as in competition with them.

"I had a job to do. Everyone was rushing around following the war," she said. "You didn't just hang around waiting to meet people."

Capa, whose fearless coverage of the Normandy invasion on D-Day was an important source for Spielberg's harrowing opening scene in "Saving Private Ryan," survived the war only to be killed in action during the Indochina conflict of the 1950s.

Capa, like many celebrated photojournalists of the period, seemed almost addicted to the excitement and danger of war.

But not Larrabee.

"I wasn't into that," she said simply. "One war was enough for me. I wanted to get home."

Larrabee returned to her portrait studio in South Africa in March 1945, a few weeks before the final German surrender.

A first look

It was only after she got home that she saw the photographs she had taken in France and Italy for the first time. Her film had been mailed directly from the front, to be developed and printed in a South African magazine.

"When I got back, people would write or call me to say they had seen their son or father in one of my pictures," Larrabee recalled.

After her return, her war pictures were organized into a touring exhibit and traveled throughout Africa and Europe.

Larrabee resumed her portrait work as well as an extended photographic documentary on South Africa's black people, whose struggle for human rights and dignity she portrayed with sympathy and understanding.

But she was becoming increasingly restless in South Africa. In 1948, the National Party came to power and instituted a policy of strict racial segregation.

Coming to America

The following year, Larrabee left South Africa for America. There, she resumed her acquaintance with an old friend, Sterling Larrabee, whom she had met during the war when he was the U.S. military attache to South Africa.

She and Larrabee married and moved to Chestertown, where she spent much of her time raising prize-winning Norwich terriers.

The couple also spent time on Tangier Island, whose people and places Larrabee began photographing in 1951.

Her pictures of Tangier Island, which form a strangely peaceful coda to a career devoted to documenting so much conflict, are on display at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum on Mill Street in St. Michaels through March 14. Call 410-745-2916.

A new exhibition of her South African photos opens at the National Museum of African Art in Washington on Sept. 25 and HTC runs through Feb. 28, 1999. Call 202-357-2700.

War photos

What: "Constance Stuart Larrabee: Life During Wartime"

Where: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays; through Oct. 15

Admission: Suggested donations $3; $1 seniors, students

Call: 202-639-1700

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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