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.

September 09, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

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.

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