Chesapeake Quarterly
More Bay Photography
Constance Stuart Larrabee
Birds in flight. Photograph, Constance Stuart Larrabee, Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Two watermen take a break on Tangier Island, Virginia.
Tangier Island watermen. Photograph, Constance Stuart Larrabee, Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Waterfowl take flight.
Corn stalks stacked for harvest on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Photograph, Constance Stuart Larrabee, Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Corn stalks stacked for harvest on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Photographs, Constance Stuart Larrabee, Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

AMONG THE MOST DISTINGUISHED PHOTOGRAPHERS to work in the Chesapeake Bay region was Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914-2000), an adventurous woman who arrived here with an international reputation based on her work as a war correspondent and as a photographer who captured the tribal cultures of South Africa.

Born in England and raised in South Africa, Constance Stuart trained in photography in London and Munich during the 1930s. At that time, she began using a Rolleiflex-type camera that she continued to use throughout her career. During World War II, she served as the first woman war correspondent assigned to cover the South African Army in Europe. After the war she returned to South Africa where she exhibited her photographs of the country's tribal regions, including the Bushmen, Transkei, and Ndebele peoples from the nation's tribal regions.

In 1949 the photographer immigrated to United States after the new government of her homeland established apartheid, the national policy of strict racial segregation. Shortly after arriving she married Sterling Loop Larrabee, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who had served as a military attache in South Africa. They settled on a waterfront farm near Chestertown, Maryland, where they bred Norwich terriers.

In 1952 she traveled on the couple's small cabin cruiser to Tangier Island and made the same sort of unmanipulated black-and-white photographs of the island natives that had distinguished her earlier work in South Africa and during World War II. By holding her Rolleiflex camera in front of her torso, she could converse with her subjects casually while composing a shot and adjusting the f-stop for light conditions. With its viewfinder on top, the camera placed no barrier between the photographer and her subject, allowing her to wait for a more relaxed moment to open the shutter. And she did not use a light meter. Consequently, her subjects appear natural and comfortable, notably those from cultures that were not as frequently exposed to photography. In addition, she photographed Eastern Shore landscapes and water scenes ranging from yachts to boatyards to watermen. After her marriage she gradually set her career as a photographer aside, though she continued to take photographs on occasion throughout the 1980s.

Her reputation, however, continued to grow in the art world. In 1955 two of Larrabee's South African tribal photographs were included in the landmark Family of Man exhibition organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. Her work was the subject of single artist exhibitions at the South African National Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In 1982 an exhibition of her Chesapeake Bay photography opened at Washington College and then traveled to Chesapeake College, the Chesapeake Maritime Museum, and the Maryland State Treasury Building in Annapolis. Before her death in 1985, she donated her World War II photographs to the Corcoran, her South African photographs to the Smithsonian African Art Museum, and her Chesapeake Bay photography to Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. A number of her photographs, principally from the Chestertown area, are also in the archives of Washington College.

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