On the surface, renowned photographer Constance Stuart’s retreat to the Eastern Shore of Maryland after her marriage to Sterling Larrabee in 1949 might seem to mark the end of her career. Pleasantly nestled among the marshes and fields near Langford Creek, the Larrabee’s farm, King’s Prevention, was a haven for the photographer, who had documented the rise of the Nazis in Germany, war in Africa, France and Italy, and everyday life of the tribes of South Africa. Although Constance’s work turned from hard-hitting photojournalism, her documentary images of the places and people of the Eastern Shore employ the same eye for storytelling as her earlier work.
Peter Elliott’s Constance: One Road to Take: The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee covers the entire arc of the photographer’s career, from her birth in Cornwall, England, where her grandfather operated a photography business; to her childhood in Pretoria, South Africa, where she acquired a Brownie box camera, learned to develop her own photos, and won her first award; to her education at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art in London, where she honed her skills in portraiture and worked with a society portrait photographer. In 1935, Constance studied at the Bavarian State Institute for Photography in Munich, Germany, and acquired a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera ideal for capturing the high resolution, tonal images desirable in documentary photographs.
Constance learned the subtleties of light and shadow that became the hallmark of her photographs while in Munich, just as Adolf Hitler seized power. She captured stark images of the National Socialist Party’s rise and later the ravages of war in France and Italy. Constance regarded herself as a photographer rather than a reporter and believed in using careful technique – her “certain eye” – to compose images, rather than manipulating the setting or the negative to achieve results. Her reflex Rolleiflex camera required her to look down to frame her photos, and then look up to engage and make eye contact with her subject, resulting in compelling, candid portraits.
This is especially evident in her images of African people in the rural areas outside of Pretoria, where she returned after her war correspondence, capturing the resilience and nobility of the black population, which already faced systemic segregation and discrimination. Similarly, her portraits of poor whites in Johannesburg in 1947-48 recall American New Deal photographers such as Dorothea Lange, although the author points out that Constance did not provide political or social context for any of her photos. This, for better or for worse, allows them to speak for themselves, and lends them to historical interpretation.
Such is the case with Constance’s photos of the Chesapeake region, including a stunning series of portraits of the people of Tangier Island taken on a weekend trip in 1951. Their composition is reminiscent of her African tribal images, and the housewives, children and watermen of the isolated island are shown with honesty and honor. Other photographs in her selected Chesapeake portfolio reveal unique aspects of the Bay’s culture, including trot lining for crabs, log canoe sailing, and corn harvesting. Several hundred images are in the collection of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, including Constance’s iconic image of one of her beloved Norwich Terriers, which she raised at King’s Prevention, and are set against the shoreline of the Chester River.
Washington College and the Kent County Historical Society hold other regional photographs, portraying college buildings and events, and derelict and well-preserved examples of historic architecture. It is regrettable that Peter does not give more attention or credence to Constance’s Eastern Shore photographs, which, although not as extensive or hard-hitting as her African and wartime work, convey the idyllic beauty of the region.
Constance once wrote that her photographs “recorded not only a personal view, but people and places, landscapes and animals which take on the timelessness of art.” Although her artful hand is evident in her work, she seems to have made a concerted effort not to insert her own viewpoint into her images, but rather to allow her subjects to speak for themselves. This technique gives an undeniable authenticity to her work, as well as a universal appeal. While Constance’s regional work was exhibited several times in the 1980s and 1990s, Peter Elliott’s Constance, One Road to Take suggests that the time has come for another retrospective of her Chesapeake photos, with renewed attention to how her “certain eye” captured the essence of the Eastern Shore.
Jenifer Grindle Dolde, Associate Curator of Collections at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, provided this review of Peter Elliott’s book, Constance: One Road to Take: The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee.
Peter Elliott’s book, Constance: One Road to Take: The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee, is available at The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Store after March 1, The Book Plate, located at 112 South Cross Street, Suite D, in Chestertown, and Amazon.