CLEAR AS THE CHURCHBELL at the Methodist mission on a Sunday morning, Constance Stuart Larrabee's photos have at last come together with the lucid prose that inspired many of them.
In "Go Well, My Child," at the Museum of African Art, quotations from Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" serve as captions for Larrabee's moving photo-documentary of South Africa in the 1940s, a time of transition. The stark light of apartheid makes them all the more poignant now.
As a portrait photographer in Pretoria, Larrabee spent her weekends roaming the countryside, photographing tribespeople -- the singular beauty of their black skin in the pure white light, against the farmlands edged by rolling grassy ridges. With her camera, she studied the streets of Johannesburg and the mining towns that lured the yon and women when the eroded, overgrazed tribal lands could no longer support them. She would combine these with other images -- those acquired on a four-day tour with Paton of the Umzimkulu Valley he wrote about.
When "Cry, the Beloved Country" brought Paton international acclaim, Larrabee was assigned to shoot his portrait for Vogue and Harper's. In February 1949, her 500-mile trip to his home in the Natal village of Anerley would be her last such journey as a South African citizen. (That same year, she came to America, married, and moved with her new husband to a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where she still lives.)
"We went into the valleys of the old men and the old women," recalls Larrabee. "The farms weren't enough to keep the families going."
She photographed those left behind: the strong young woman learning to plow, draped in a blanket for all seasons; the sensual, serene Transkei woman, many-braceleted, balancing a bunch of bananas on her head; the devout older woman pausing to face the sun, at the turnstile that kept the animals from the churchyard. While the woman's complexion is flawless, her hands are as wrinkled as the leather purse she clutches.
With clear, steady eyes, Larrabee captured serenity and timelessness. Most of these 70 photos have never been exhibited, and only a handful appeared in Larrabee's "Tribal Photographs" last year at the Corcoran.
She saw with her camera the teenage boys clustered about the mine recruiting station, wearing their traditional robes, smoking pipes and laughing. An exuberant youth leapt about for a series of photos: As neither spoke the other's language, she danced first, so he would dance for her camera.
And she photographed the minister and his wife walking down the road to catch the "small toy train" for Johannesburg. It was such a minister that Paton depicted in his tragic novel about Reverend Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu who lost his son to the city.
Larrabee's images reverbeate with Paton's words:
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley.
GO WELL MY CHILD: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CONSTANCE STUART LARRABEE IN COLLABORATION WITH ALAN PATON -- At the Museum of African Art through January 5, 1986.