Photos as historical sources: Researching the 1930s/40s images of photographer, Constance Stuart Larrabee
By Peter Elliott
13 June 2019
In writing this blog, I hope to give readers an idea of how, as a historian rather than art historian, I approached sourcing material to write a book with a strong art tilt, and yet founded in an historical context. I researched the story from my home in the Languedoc, France, overcoming the disadvantages of physical remoteness from libraries by regular periodic visits to the fabulous British Library (where I maintain a reader’s card), using my Cambridge alumnus access to journals, and employing an MA History of Art Student in Washington D.C. to help to access the materials I needed from the archives in Washington D.C. The “hard” part was sourcing the context of each image, and it is on this that I propose to dwell.
Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914–2000) was a photographer, fêted in both South Africa and the USA yet little-known outside of these countries. She was intrepid as a war correspondent and as a solo woman photographer in South Africa and would go anywhere to capture the photographs she wanted to take.
The book Constance: One Road to Take is the first comprehensive book on her life and work, covering her work in South Africa during the period 1936–1949, in war-torn France and Italy in 1944–1945, and in the USA during the second half of her life. The book provides insights into the social and political backdrop against which she made her photographs in Southern Africa and draws on her unique war journal.
Constance Stuart Larrabee
The photographer’s early career was spent in a South Africa that was divided into camps, white and black, Afrikaans- and English-speaking. Full-blown apartheid had not yet been introduced but South African society was marked by regimented townships, influx control, and segregated living areas. Despite her background, she managed to penetrate into the rural reserves and the townships. Her early photographs provide a unique lens into the lives of women and children living on the land while their husbands worked deep underground or in the factories that spilled out onto the ridges of the Witwatersrand.
Constance studied art both in England and Germany, and subsequently started a studio in Pretoria. Although the studio was successful, her prime interest lay in chronicling the lives of black people living in the countryside, and later in the city and mines.
She also covered the Allied advance in France and Italy towards the end of the Second World War. In the late 1940s she married and settled in the USA, where she continued her photography.
Sources for the book
It has often been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”; in the course of my research I was struck repeatedly by the potential power of a combination of words and pictures to convey a message. Richard Wright, a non-fiction author, wrote of the plight of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries and his seminal photobook, 12 Million Voices, educated Constance in her own approach to photography, an art in which she showed astonishing clarity and vision.
There is no doubt that, from the point of view of a historian, photographs can assist in our understanding of an event by capturing the scene. However, while a photographer can present a scene with authenticity, at that same time that same artist can manipulate the scene they are shooting. It is always difficult to agree on the meaning of images. Close contemplation of an image results in our discarding objectivity and taking away our own subjective meaning of it. Nevertheless, images can be extremely useful, for example, to describe the profound transformations that have taken place in Southern Africa. How then do we approach historical images? This blog aims to set out one author’s personal approach: to record and analyse whatever meaning the photographer ascribed to it (but to judge this carefully for authenticity) and to supplement this with informed contextual information, drawn from works of historians and others writing about the peoples and places photographed, and the true conditions at the time.
Constance’s forte was close photography of people, in the sense that her work demonstrated her “connection” with her subjects both emotionally and spiritually. Joy and dignity shine through her images. In contrast her own writing was superficial, rather than searching, and she herself never rose to the challenges presented by the context of her Southern African photography. In embarking on this project I combed through thousands of images, and multiple contact sheets, to gain an understanding of the artist’s approach to her work. Then I researched the backdrop to each chapter to craft a core text: e.g. I focussed on the social and political history of Southern Africa of the 1930s/40s, the backdrop to her Southern African photographic projects. Photographs were selected for the book as much for their “fit” with the narrative, as for their aesthetic quality, but all photographs, I believe, are documents that contribute to the story, and are not mere illustrations. Finally, once I had selected images for the book, to add sense to every stunning photograph (and there are just under ninety of her images illustrated in the book) I embarked on a further study of each one in order to draw meaning from everything I could in the image. My thesis is that there is much that these images can tell us that the historical account of the past alone cannot. Hopefully, this results in a dialogue between the visual source and the text. Each reader, however, will bring their own perspective to the photographs, in parallel with any “historical” facts that I have been able to provide, and in this sense the images will continue to speak for themselves.
I secured privileged access to a rich archive of her manuscripts and Southern African images. While this archive proved to be a great source of imagery, the manuscript materials contributed little to the enrichment of historical context. There were exceptions: in a couple of cases her photographs were destined for publication, as illustrations within a serious piece of writing. Professor Isaac Schapera, known for his ethnographic and typological work, wrote illustrated articles in Natural History and provided valuable context for both Constance’s Ndebele photographs, and those of the San people of the Kalahari (Schapera 1949 and 1952). A church historian, Bengt Sundkler, authored Bantu Prophets in South Africa, a seminal book concerning the independent African religious sects, and his publication illustrated Constance’s photographs of their rituals and ceremonies (Sundkler 1961).
It is important to remember that the pre-1948 period was one of political fluidity during which the advent of apartheid was by no means preordained. South Africa’s 1940s, 2005 (edited by Saul Dubow and Alan Jeeves) outlines the “worlds of possibilities” envisioned on all sides immediately after the war and it was in this ambivalent era that Constance worked. She first photographed the Ndebele, and subsequently broadened her expeditions to the Transkei and the territory then known as Basutoland (now Lesotho). She also photographed miners in the Witwatersrand and Kimberley, and migrant workers and their families, in the townships and on the streets of Johannesburg.
There are representative images of all these projects in the book. To understand her photographs in the reserves and territories of this era it was vital to return to sources that recorded the stagnation, and the poverty of people and resources of these areas at the time. Similarly it was important to record the inequities of the migrant labour system and the manner in which it kept wages so low: two contemporary government reports, the Mine Wages Report 1943 and the Report on the Reserves 1946, provided a very accurate account of these conditions, and their recommendations (had they ever been implemented) could have transformed the outcomes. Peter Delius too provided an accessible history of migrant labour and the prolonged periods that workers spent far from their homes and families, explaining the fractured family life depicted in the images (Delius 2017).
Undoubtedly Constance’s leading project was that among the Ndzundza Ndebele: their lands had been declared forfeit to the Boer Republic in the late 1800s, and they had led precarious lives, exchanging their labour for ground on which to build their homesteads and plant crops on white-owned farmland in the countryside north of Pretoria. I discovered a rich history of these people in the writings of both Peter Delius and Franco Frescura, and was able to view, and describe, Constance’s photographs with greater understanding: their traditions of making intricate beadwork and painting their walls with vivid decoration could be seen as part and parcel of their resistance to the dispossession they suffered, and the pressures to which they were subjected (Delius 1989, and Frescura 2001).
Constance photographed a Nagmaal weekend in Bronkhorstspruit in 1947. I was surprised at the dearth of written material on the traditions of this rural Dopper church ceremony of the Lord’s Supper. However, unusually Constance herself wrote a relatively detailed account of this event on which I was able to draw. I also found in the archive a delightfully informal essay written by Professor A.L. Meiring on the subject of Nagmaal. Meiring also wrote an informative essay on the architecture of the Amandebele of Pretoria, on which I drew in relation to Constance’s Ndebele images (Meiring 1955). Thus, there were some little historical gems discovered along the way, which enriched the background to the photographs.
Constance’s WWII Photo Journal images cover principally the period she spent documenting the liberation of France in 1944, but more importantly, from the point of view of a South African military historian, the time she spent photographing the Sixth South African Armoured Division troops in the Apeninnes, Italy. This was during the bitterly cold conditions of the winter of 1944–45, on the static line, that constituted the Italian front, static because of the mountains, mud and snow. Constance captured portraits of the fighting men, and scenes, near Castiglione and Grizzana, throughout this period. Despite sporadic shelling and mortaring, in these photographs she was able to depict the effects wrought by war upon people and the landscape. I gained access to the 23 two-page articles entitled Jeep Trek (Stuart 1946) which included not only her images but also her diary recounting her personal story with the freshness of her own voice. There were multiple sources on the liberation of France, and I myself had researched the South African Apennines campaign and included images by Constance in an article in the South African Military History Journal (Elliott 2013).
Constance donated all her archives to US museums: her South African and Second World War archives were gifted to two different museums in Washington D.C., but subsequently the wartime photographs have been further distributed among multiple museums. An annex in the book describes the archives in detail: this provides a roadmap for the researcher seeking images. A large number of her Southern African images can be readily viewed online, but her atmospheric photographs of the landscape and debris of conflict, and the multiple portraits she made of South African soldiers embroiled in the mayhem of war, are much more difficult for historians to access, and remain relatively unknown in South Africa.
I have set out one author’s concept of the relationship between photographs, as documents, and other documentary historical sources, which I endeavoured to combine to tell a particular story in a more powerful way. In my book the photographs are an integral part of the story, as it is a biography of the photographer who made them. This is so, irrespective of a viewer’s conclusions as to the authenticity of an image. Photographs provide a rare glimpse of a “decisive moment”, never again to be repeated. However, we always need to question whether a photograph is biased, and indeed if it is an accurate record of the event it purports to record. The photographer records the image he or she wants the viewer to see. The viewer then needs to analyse the photograph, to derive full meaning from it, and draw on secondary sources in order to interpret it.
- Delius, Peter. (1989) The Ndundza Ndebele: Indenture and the making of ethnic identity, 1883–1914. In: Bonner, P., Hofmeyr, I., James, D. and Lodge, T. (eds.) Holding their Ground: class, locality and culture in 19th and 20th century South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press and Witwatersrand University Press, pp. 227–58.
- Delius, Peter. (2017) The History of Migrant Labour in South Africa (1800–2014). In: Oxford Research Encyclopaedias, African History. [accessed: 6 August 2017].
- Dubow, S. and Jeeves, A. (eds.). (2005) South Africa’s 1940s: Worlds of possibilities. Cape Town: Double Storey.
- Frescura, Franco. (2001) KwaMSIZA: The history of an Ndebele village. South African History Online. [accessed: 15 November 2017].
- Meiring, A.L. (1955) The Amandebele of Pretoria. S.A. Architectural Record, April, pp. 26–35.
- Schapera, I. (1949) The Ndebele of South Africa. Natural History, LVIII(9), pp. 408–14.
- Schapera, I. (1952) The Bushmen of the Kalahari. Natural History, LXI(10), pp. 456–64.
- Social and Economic Planning Council. (1946) The Native Reserve and their place in the economy of South Africa, Report No.9, Pretoria, South Africa: Government Printer.
- Stuart, Constance, 1946. Jeep Trek, a series of 23 two-page illustrated articles, published weekly in Spotlight, March to August 1946, 1(1) to 1(23).
- Sundkler, Bengt. (1961) Bantu Prophets in South Africa. 2nd ed. London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press.
- Union of South Africa. (1943) Report of the Witwatersrand Mine Natives’ Wages Commission on the Remuneration and Conditions of Employment of Natives on Witwatersand Gold Mines. Witwatersrand Mine Natives’ Wages Commission, Pretoria, South Africa, U.G. No. 21-1944.
About the Contributor:
Peter Elliott has had a lifelong interest in both history and art. He was brought up in South Africa and did a first degree at University of Cape Town. He then won a national scholarship to Cambridge University, England, and went to Trinity College where he read law. As a qualified lawyer he remained in England, becoming a corporate lawyer, and divided his career between private practice and industry. On his retirement he and his wife moved to live in the Languedoc, France, a landscape of vines and mountains reminiscent of his Cape origins. There he has returned to his first love, history. He is the author of two previous books, Eight Months in the Veneto, a history set amongst the partisans in Italy during the last years of the Second World War and Nita Spilhaus (1878–1967) and her artist friends in the Cape, a story of a group of impressionist painters in the Cape (described as a “a comprehensive resource” by South African Art Times).
You can reach Peter at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the book:
Elliott, Peter. 2018. Constance: One Road to Take. The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914-2000). Alairac: Cantaloup Press.
Both the Printed Edition and the ebook are available worldwide on Amazon. The Printed Edition will shortly be stocked by Clarke’s Bookshop, 199 Long Street, Cape Town 8000, Tel: 021 423 5739 (contact Andre Sales).