There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is not mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. -- "Cry, the Beloved Country"
The words that begin "Cry, the Beloved Country," Alan Paton's poignant novel of South Africa, will greet visitors at a special exhibit of photographs at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, 318 A St. NE, through Jan. 6.
In February 1949, a year after the landmark novel was published, Paton took Constance Stuart Larrabee -- a South Africa-raised photographer who now lives in Chestertown -- on a four-day trek through the lush and desolate countryside that both had come to love. Armed with her Rolleiflex, Larrabee captured on film images of a black culture that would later vanish. She kept the negatives neatly filed in shoeboxes in her historic Chestertown home until, she says, "the time was right." The 80 black-and-white photographs on exhibit now are a collection of the first prints from those negatives.
Like the opening section of Paton's book, they tell of a journey from South Africa's Natal countryside, where traditional black culture still thrived in the 1940s, to the westernized city of Johannesburg.
Larrabee, now 71, recalled how the project began during a recent visit to her exhibit:
"An American press agent had cabled me for a photograph of Paton," she said. "When I came to this house in Natal, Paton began taking me around the area he had written about. There was nothing planned; it was completely natural. He was familiar with my work -- I had taken pictures of the African tribes since 1937.
"I was young then; it was all very exciting. Paton's book was the most important book of my generation to come out of South Africa."
Their trek began in the town of Anerley, Natal, Paton's home near the Indian Ocean -- 500 miles from Larrabee's chic portrait studio in Pretoria, where she photographed famous statesmen, military figures and artists of the day. "The studio was my source of income, but my avocation was photographing the tribes," Larrabee said.
From Anerley they visited the Uvonga Anglican Mission School, where Larrabee photographed Paton among the black children. And then Ixopo, where, as in the novel, they waited with the blacks for the "toy train" that would carry them to work in the gold mines in the promised land of Johannesburg. And a dirt road at the southern coast of Natal, where they met a minister and his wife, photographed with their backs to Larrabee's camera, she balancing the wash on her turban, he in a western suit and hat with his briefcase slung like a knapsack over his shoulder, a stick through its handle.
The photos almost uncannily mirror the passions and people of the novel: a 1947 image of Shanty Town, the makeshift living quarters for black squatters outside of Johannesburg; mineworkers doing their laundry at a camp outside the city; the tribal women of Transkei in celebratory dance; an Ndebele mother holding her child, their faces profiled against the clouds.
Larrabee, who was born in England, arrived in South Africa with her family when she was 3 months old. A decade later she received her first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie No. 0. She used it to win a children's photography contest in Pretoria, and by age 19 was sure she wanted to be a photographer. She studied in London and Munich, but it was the Bauhaus-style school of realism in Germany, rather than the soft-focus society pictures Larrabee shot as an apprentice in London, that she adopted for her later work. She got her first Rolleiflex in Germany, a camera she used as South Africa's first woman war correspondent a decade later, slogging through the mud near the Apennine Mountains in Italy, photographing the allied invasion of the south of France and seeing combat in Egypt.
Larrabee switched careers rather dramatically when she came to America in 1950 to marry Sterling (Loop) Larrabee, a military attache' to Greece, Yugoslavia and South Africa during World War II. She became an expert breeder of Norwich and Norfolk terriers, and founded a newsletter and edited a book on the subject. "In South Africa, they know me as Constance Stuart, the photographer. In America, I'm Constance Larrabee, dog breeder," she said.
Larrabee still makes regular trips to South Africa to visit family and friends, although she has not seen Paton, now 82, since he visited the United States in the early 1950s. He gave his approval to use quotes from his book for the exhibit in a phone call last summer, she said.
"I think Paton and I both had a sympathy, a feeling for these people," she said. "It's interesting, isn't it? We came from two different angles, and now it's only the prose and the photographs that remain . . . The traditions were broken down so much by western civilization."