Over the last couple of months, I've spent a lot of time looking at the work of South African photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee. The photo directly below -- the portrait of the man in riding breeches -- is my current favorite. But I don't think that Larrabee liked it very much.
As far as I can determine, she neither published nor exhibited it. The photo remained hidden away, until the National Museum of African Art acquired her archive. I've found nothing in her papers or in her rare interviews that would tell me precisely why she never made it public. But I can guess: the photo says something about mid-twentieth-century black South Africans that she didn't want to know. To understand what I mean by that, follow me on a little journey.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Ndebele men (South Africa), 1936-1949. (All photos are from the Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection at the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art. Click directly on any of the photos to see much larger versions.)
Larrabee was one of South Africa's leading portrait photographers, in the 1930s and '40s. (Noel Coward once sat for her, as did prime ministers, generals, artists, and the very wealthy.) Despite this, her fame rests on her photojournalism and documentary photography -- photos that she made during World War Two (she was one of the very few women to have photographed combat) and on what she called her "native life studies."
The "native life studies" are by far her most popular work. They've been published and exhibited many times in South Africa, the United States, and Europe. They're also the photos that most engaged her energy, talent, and passion.
The photo of the man in riding breeches isn't one of them. The photo below is.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Ndebele mother and child (South Africa), 1936-1949 (probably 1960).
As Darren Newbury has recently pointed out, "native studies" were a popular genre -- and not just in South Africa. Everybody with a camera seems to have made them -- that is, every white person with a camera -- anthropologists, missionaries, tourists, hobbyists, and off-duty professionals, like Larrabee. She worked on her "native studies" steadily, from 1936, until she left South Africa for the United States, in 1949. Afterward, she continued to produce them during her occasional visits home.
While many factors drew Larrabee to the Africans that she photographed, the most important were aesthetic. As she told South Africa's Pretoria News, in 1944, "Natives are the most photogenic people.... They are a really marvelous medium for photography. Their skin reflects the light so well." A little less than a decade later, she said much the same thing to a reporter from the New York World-Telegram and Sun, who was interviewing her for a story about an exhibition of her "native studies" at the Museum of Natural History, in New York City. Africans, particularly the women, are "wonderful specimens," she said, "...Beautiful skins, cheerful smiles, and wonderful teeth."
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Ndebele Woman at Wall (South Africa), 1936-1949.
Larrabee also admired the artistic skills of the African women, especially the Ndebele, who were her frequent subjects. In "The Ndebele," a brief, undated essay (probably from the early 1950s), Larrabee praised their "ancient art of primitive mural decoration and bead ornamentation," seeing it as an "exotic and colorful contrast" to European design.
Larrabee loved this supposedly "unspoilt" Africa and its "good-humoured and child-like people [who] still retain their natural culture, dress and customs," to quote another unpublished essay. Within this vision of Africa, there was no place here for a black man in riding breeches.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Portrait of a Ndebele Man (South Africa), 1936-1949.
By this time, you will have noticed the red flags waving before your eyes and the warning bells ringing in your ears. This view of Africans is deeply condescending, on the one hand (Africans are not perpetual children), and objectifying, on the other (Africans are not merely aesthetic objects, waiting patiently to be photographed by curious outsiders). It's also just plain wrong about Africans' relationship to the world in which they lived, as Larrabee herself knew, but could never fully accept.
I'm not going to chastise Larrabee for her attitude toward Africans. That would be grossly unfair. She was a woman of her time and place, "the quintessential [white] liberal" of the day, to quote Brenda Danilowitz. She was "enchanted and enticed by the rich sensations of Africa," but was also "trapped in a vision of a white universe" in which Africans could never be her equals or fully at home in modern, urban civilization.
The irony here is that, at the very time that Larrabee was making her "native studies," black men and women throughout South Africa were busily creating a vibrant urban culture that would give rise to political activists, artists, and many other who would stride the world stage in the 1950s. Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba are merely two of the most famous. From all walks of life, these men and women had this in common -- they were "New Africans," urban and urbane, cosmopolitan, self-confident, and increasingly assertive in the face of white domination.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Two Ndebele children (South Africa), 1936-1949.
As much as Larrabee tried to keep this new reality at bay, outside of the frame of her photographs, it kept creeping back in. Even in the countryside, Africans were not living in the timeless past; they were part and parcel of a modern colonial society. (Yes, that's "Mr. Peanut" in the photo above.)
Take the architecture, wall painting, and jewelry that can be seen in these photos as an example. While Larrabee wanted her viewers "to believe that they were witnessing an people whose traditions originated way back in the mist of time," to quote Danilowitz, again, the truth was very different.
The traditions were modern, not ancient. They were a response to what Peter Delius calls, the "particularly brutal and disruptive process of colonial conquest" that the Ndebele had endured at the end of the nineteenth century. While Ndebele designs, John Peffer tells us, usually reflected the world in highly compressed and abstracted forms, they routinely incorporated references to the colonial world and its commodities.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Ndebele Men with Bicycles (South Africa), 1936-1949.
Larrabee may not have fully appreciated how contemporary the Ndebele designs truly were, but she certainly understood the degree to which Africans were being incorporated, voluntarily and involuntarily, into the urban world. To her credit, she recorded it with both her camera and her pen.
In "The Ndebele," the short essay that I mentioned earlier, Larrabee acknowledged that the men "are completely Europeanized." "They work in the cities," as menial laborers, and "no longer wear tribal dress except on ceremonial occasions." The men that she photographed in the image above almost certainly bought their bicycles with wages that they had earned as urban workers and likely used them to commute to their jobs. Their families, including the wives and mothers whom Larrabee claimed were so deeply traditional, depended on their wages for survival. (In fact, many of the women would have also worked for whites at some point in their lives.) After the war, she often photographed highly urbanized Africans in Johannesburg and Pretoria, usually on assignment for magazines and government agencies.
Yet, what she knew, what she saw, and what she photographed were very different from what she chose to publish and exhibit. She edited -- you might even say censored -- her photos to create a vision of a timeless tribal Africa, an Africa without bicycles and without New Africans. It was an Africa, as Danilowitz says, removed from history.
Which brings us back to the man in riding breeches.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Ndebele men (South Africa), 1936-1949. (Click directly on the image to see a larger version.)
We notice him first. He's centered in the image, but it's his steady, self-confident gaze and his almost defiantly relaxed posture that draw our eyes to him. I've never seen any of Larrabee's other black subjects confront her so directly. There's nothing subservient about the man, nothing nostalgic, nothing that suggests he's anything other than Larrabee's equal. It's as though he's challenging her, knowing that she'll find it exceedingly difficult to impose her ideas about Africans on him. She'll have to accept him as he presents himself. In her body of work, that makes him stand out.
His clothes aren't an afterthought. They're an assertion of his membership in the urban, cosmopolitan world of New Africans. And they're evidence of his earning power, as well. But they're also an extravagant parody of colonial dress. The jacket, jersey, and scarf that he wears above the waist lampoon and re-purpose the style of the elite. The field boots and riding breeches mock the uniforms South Africa army officers and completely subvert their meaning.
The man on the right is worth noting as well. He's wearing western clothes, of course, suggesting that he works among whites, probably in one of South Africa's cities. He's writing, which implies that he's a man of authority within the community and perhaps beyond it as well -- even at this period, relatively few black South Africans had much formal schooling. If we were to guess that he's another New African, we'd probably be right. But he's also wearing a beaded Ndebele necklace, reminding us that "New" and "African" didn't have to mean "western." Identities are elusive things.
The entire photo speaks volumes about realities that Larrabee usually tried to leave out of the frame and always managed to exclude from her exhibitions. In the background, for instance, sitting in front of a thatched-roof house that's painted in the Ndebele style, are at least two women whose western clothing, showing that they, too, were enmeshed in the colonial economy.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Constance Stuart [Larrabee] with Ndebele Men, 1936-1949.
Larrabee was as complicated a figure as any of her subjects. Perhaps I've oversimplified her relationship to the Africans that she photographed. In the same 1944 interview in which she called Africans "a really marvelous medium for photography," she also spoke about getting to know them as individuals, learning to sing their songs, and liking them "immensely." Read the extended captions that she wrote for some of her photos, and you'll discover that she learned the names of at least some of the women that she photographed.
The visual evidence points in the same direction. Larrabee made many photos of the Ndebele and clearly developed a rapport with almost all of her subjects. No one looks hostile or resentful; many look quite happy.
Peffer says that although Larrabee "primitivized" the Ndebele, she certainly "did not mean to disparage" them. She instead sought to isolate "the beauty of Ndebele culture within a society that treated black people as second-class citizens."
That sounds about right to me. She created a beautiful myth.
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Afterthought, 12 August 2010: I should probably emphasize that the desire to view Africans as living within timeless and unchanging tribal cultures is by no means a solely South African phenomenon. In 1949, for instance, Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History, became one of the first publications to feature Larrabee's Ndebele photographs. They illustrated an article by the anthropologist Issac Schapera that was, in fact, probably written to accompany the photos.
Larrabee's photos and Schapera's text were sandwiched in between articles on the palm trees, white squirrels, hognose snakes, and lake trout. This was business as usual. The magazine routinely published stories about black- and brown-skinned "traditional" people, seeing them as a part of the natural world, in the same way as exotic plants and animals.
In an editor's note, the magazine praised the Ndebele for not having "lost their cultural identity" and warned that those "who unconsciously encourage the native to conform to the white man's gadget civilization might well think twice before hastening the day when such a rich artistic tradition is thrust into the forgotten limbo of vanished cultures."
Sadly, that kind of "vanished cultures" malarkey is still with us. So are "native studies," which remain a popular genre with western photographers, publishers, and consumers. The next time you look at a book by, say, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher (to give the most obvious example), remember to ask yourself what's being mythologized and what's being left out.