“…I didn’t know or understand that I was photographing ways of life that would disappear…”
He may have been born and raised in the US, but it is Greece with which photographer Robert McCabe will forever be synonymous.
Born in Chicago, and raised in and around New York City, he was introduced to photography during his early childhood. His father, a newspaper publisher, encouraged him to capture the world around him from as early as the tender age of five, initially with a Kodak Baby Brownie, and as he got older, a Ciroflex medium format camera. On the eve of his first trip to Greece in 1954, his parents gifted him the iconic Rolleiflex, used by many of the greats of the era.
Ironically, prior to this trip, McCabe had little interest in Greece, in comparison to other parts of Europe, but was persuaded by his brother to join him and his Greek friend Petros. However, immediately captivated by the country the brothers cancelled their planned itinerary (which included Egypt, Italy and France) and what was initially supposed to be a two-week trip, became a full summer.
McCabe’s arrival in Greece coincided with the country’s recovery from WWII and the subsequent civil war. Although the ‘economic miracle’ – a period of rapid and sustained economic growth that lasted until the early 1970s – was already underway, the country was still in the early stages of this transformation and remained relatively impoverished, providing McCabe with a fascinating contrast to the middle-class America to which he was accustomed.
“…there were many interesting things to photograph that I had never seen before: Donkeys for transport of people and goods. Women doing their laundry in rivers. Children carrying water home from the village spring. Old ships carrying cargo and passengers to the islands. All very photogenic and interesting.”
This initial trip marked a pivotal moment: the beginning of a profound and enduring love affair that would shape McCabe’s photographic practice. He returned to Greece the following year, then again in 1957 on assignment from National Geographic, and over the ensuing decade, dedicated increasing amounts of time to documenting its ever-evolving face.
In 1965 his connection to the country deepened even further, or as he so eloquently describes it “the evolution of my relationship with Greece became a revolution”, when he wedded an Athenian whose father had roots in the Cyclades. The pair shared a love of the islands, and as McCabe describes it “admired the way of life that had evolved in the islands over thousands of years”. Their travels together centered on the islands and led to them buying a remote farm on Patmos where they settled.
McCabe’s early depictions of Greece capture a nation on the brink of modernization. In the year of his initial visit, the country received just 180,000 visitors. Today, that number is over 30 million. With honesty, tenderness and a masterful understanding of light, he captured his newfound love, rendering deeply absorbing images which stand as important touchstones of the time.
“…I didn’t know or understand that I was photographing ways of life that would disappear. Key changes looking back: donkeys replaced by tractors and cars; running water comes to houses eliminating the ubiquitous ladies carrying jugs of water or going to the river to do laundry; massive tourism; the disappearance of wooden boats and their builders because of EU policies; islands open up with fast RoRo ships and airports; LSTs replaced by bridges or real ferries.”
He may not be a household name, but McCabe’s depictions of Greece are as absorbing as some of the most ‘iconic’ images captured by his renowned contemporaries. Whether moments of everyday life or the captivating landscapes and landmarks for which the country is renowned, his imagery distils the essence of the country beautifully.
Collectively, his work stands as a testament to a profound and enduring affection, showcasing the artistry of an American photographer and the captivating beauty of the country with which he will forever be intertwined.
“One can go out in the morning saying to himself ‘I’m going to take an iconic picture today’, but it usually seems to happen by chance: objects and figures positioned just right; a cloud of the right size and shape at just the right time of day; an unexpected figure or figures positioned in an unusual or distinctive way. Costa Manos told me the surprise element in a photograph is the most important factor. Brassai believed the force of an image mattered most, and that usually meant simplicity of composition.”
All images © Robert McCabe
Robert McCabe has published numerous books on Greece including his latest, Greece After the War: Years of Hope, which is available here.