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Constance Stuart Larrabee pauses in her wheelchair before an image of a crumpled German soldier; the remains of his head are submerged in a gravelly trench. On a Friday in August, days after her 84th birthday, the photographer who documented six months of Allied liberation in 1944, is touring a gallery at the Corcoran filled with her gelatin silver prints and personal memorabiliapages from her wartime diary, her tattered press credentialsfor a show titled Constance Stuart Larrabee: Life in Wartime 1936-1945. Speaking barely above a whisper, Larrabee recounts each image to reporters craning around her.
She points to the ecstatic image of a French woman ripping the blackout paper from her open shutters. “For five years, she’d never thrown those windows open,” Larrabee says. When she reaches an image of Hitler greeting soldiers at a 1935 Nazi rally in Munich, where she studied photography in the prewar years, Larrabee betrays a frisson of revulsion. “That’s not mine,” she insists. “I never got that close to him.”
Larrabee’s onetime proximity to the Führer still unsettles her. She got too near to many scenes in the war. The British-born photographer, who now lives with her husband in Chestertown, Md., learned to wield her Rolleiflex as a photography student in London and Munich, where she was “busy having a good time.” After school, she moved to South Africa, photographing Pretoria’s haute société in her private studio and disappearing on weekends to the city’s outskirts to record the country’s vanishing tribal culture. In 1944, the South African newspaper Libertas sent her to Cairo to document military maneuvers. Finding that the war had passed Egypt, she attached herself to Allied troops headed to southern France and Italy.
Larrabee wrests herself from the chair, canting upward onto a metal cane, her translucent hands gripping its creamy gray handle. She still wears the shoulder-length flip of her 1944 military ID picture, although her brunet hair has turned white. She inches toward the Hitler image as video cameras hover and buzz, occasionally bumping into each other in the flurry. Lois Townsend, Larrabee’s nurse-assistant for the past 10 years, whispers that Larrabee’s short-term memory has faded over the last six months, though her recollection of wartime events remains lucid.
Somebody asks Larrabee whether she’s proud of her wartime work, which is on display at the Corcoran through Oct. 18 in one of three simultaneous Larrabee shows.
“No,” she replies quickly. She glances around the gallery’s circumference and adds, “I’ve lived a long life. The only things that count are your friends and your country.”Jessica Dawson
On Aug. 29, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum opens Faces of Tangier Island: Photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee. On Sept. 20, the National Museum of African Art opens South Africa, 1936-1949: Photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee.