Sharing a conversation with the photographer who has produced some of the most iconic images of Greece since the 50s goes definitely beyond any other grecophile notion, to a level that is pure fascination and talent. Robert McCabe, who was born in Chicago in 1934 and grew up in Rye, New York, has made Greece his second home – been granted honorary Greek citizenship in 2020 – and it all started with his European trip in 1954 that gave him the opportunity to experience the Greek islands before they became “destinations.” His perfect-timing “good fortune” and love of photography have become precious assets in a journey that has covered so far Greece, France, Italy, New York City, New England, Havana, China, and Antarctica; an archive that grows constantly and has given visual substance to over 15 books and catalogs.
With a humble and open-minded attitude, McCabe has captured human beings and landscapes since he was 5 years old, the time (1939) his father, who was working for a NYC-based picture newspaper, gifted him a Kodak Baby Brownie. From documenting natural disasters and motor accidents as a photojournalist to coming to appreciating light in its joyful Greek form, he has evolved along with his equipment, having generous amounts of intuition and a knack for the technical aspects of his métier. A shift in interests – from the dramatic to the meaningful – happened during his three uneventful years in Western Massachusetts. Later, a Greek friend of his brother from Princeton University invited him to the Greek islands, giving him a quick introduction to local hospitality codes and natural beauty. He returned to Greece in 1955 and 1957 and photographed the Cyclades for National Geographic. It sounds like a love affair that continues to add color to his busy life.
His Greek images were first exhibited in 1954 and 1955 at Firestone Library at Princeton University, and ever since, he has exhibited his work at important venues and institutions in New York City, Boston, London, Paris, Brussels, and many locations in Greece, including Athens, Patmos, Santorini, Patras, Thessaloniki, Corfu, and Poros. He has undoubtedly achieved more than he realizes, and the list goes on as more of McCabe’s publications filled with some never-seen-before photos are in the making. Check our description of his recent books on Mykonos and Santorini HERE and read below what he is up to during the pandemic and how technology and the new media are part of his photographic universe.
Through your feed on Instagram, we noticed your effort to stay updated and catch up with the stories of people and places you have photographed. Is this pure nostalgia or a journalist’s/ historian’s approach to photography, a way to keep track and create a timeline?
Most of these “updates” came about by chance rather than any deliberate research on my part. The first of these was the “discovery” of the three little girls I had photographed in Peristeri, Epirus, in 1961. The discovery came about because we had used their photo on the poster for an exhibition at the Rizarios Center in Monodendri. One of the posters was in the Lake Hotel in Ioannina. A visitor saw it and said “that’s my wife!” And that is how we met up again 50 years later with Eleni, Maria, and Lambrini. The other three episodes all came about because of postings on Instagram. It’s quite a thrill when it happens! And there can be unexpected fallout: a little boy I photographed in Kassos 55 years ago, Nikolaos Mastropavlos, is a renowned journalist and is collaborating with Marilena Kedros and me on a book about Kassos. What a piece of good fortune! In terms of “urban” or, more accurately, village landscapes, I’ve noticed that people respond strongly to pre-tourism views of Mykonos and Santorini, and other islands. The gritty, authentic beauty of the old architecture and passageways and their colors has in many places been lost to a concept of “what a cute Greek island village should look like.”
From photographing the islands before severe earthquakes to capturing the excavations at Mycenae and sites before their restoration, your photos are not just charming and captivating; they are story-telling and, along with their captions, they are encyclopedic; a documentation of various places and eras that were destined to change and evolve. What was your initial purpose or thinking?
I arrived in Greece with a new camera and a great love for photography, which I had been introduced to when I was 5 years old. There was no purpose in the early photos I took on my first two trips, in 1954 and 1955. I found both the antiquities and the people very inspiring. And inspiration is really important in photography. It shows in the results. How I wish I had brought more film! When I returned in 1957, there was a purpose in that I was asked by the National Geographic Society to take backup photos for an article a senior editor was doing on the Cyclades. That individual was a great photographer (Gil Grosvenor) and needed no backup. But I was thrilled to take the assignment and the huge supply of precious Kodachrome film that came with it. The Geographic only uses color, so I had to make a transition from black and white compositions to thinking in terms of color. They are very different, as you can imagine. And Kodachrome itself, with its poor latitude, was difficult in the Greek islands where you have such extreme contrasts of light and color. I also had to adapt to a rectangular frame instead of a square. I still think a 4×5 ratio or square is better than the 35 mm format.
Did you sense back then that these places would change as much as Santorini and Mykonos did?
What happened in those two islands was inconceivable to me then, although we certainly saw potential for tourism – because, at the time, there was essentially none. When my brother and I visited Santorini in August 1954, we were the only visitors on the island. There were no cars, just a jeep, a bus or two, trucks, and few roads. When we got back to Athens, we decided to give our host something that would amuse him. So we got a big nautical chart of Santorini and with a dark pencil proceeded to “develop” the island with an airport, marinas, a téléphérique, hotels, etc. It was all a big joke, but what happened far exceeded what we had profligately drawn on the map. My plan was to come back to Greece every summer and photograph these unspoiled magical islands, which I assumed were not destined to change much over my lifetime. How wrong can you be!
We all see in these images the artistic dimension, the “poetic realism,” the spontaneity of the composition, the moment. How much of these “perfect moment” shots do you attribute to instinct and intuition? What is your process, and does it feel like an effortless journey?
Many of my favorite images seem to have a lot of luck in them: unusual lighting, a passing cloud, a figure in the right place. You start with something you want to document and try to add an element of composition, or by chance, it happens to be there. When I first started taking photos, it was all about just documenting something. The idea of trying to add possibly interesting elements came later. But let’s face it, “The Decisive Moment” for me is often just a very lucky moment.
You have captured everyday people of all trades – rarely famous people – and yet most of your portraits feel monumental, epitomizing the simple joys of life, even of a life in poverty and of limited means. What made you pick your “models,” and what human qualities do you still admire or reference through your photos?
The selections for the (let’s call them) portraits were pretty much random and opportunistic. An interesting face. An interesting job. A group perhaps posing, perhaps not. As photographers, we prize candid, unposed, unrehearsed images of people. But many viewers respond more fully to a face with a smile looking right into the lens. The viewer and the subject are in communication! With candid photos, there are other elements but not the perceived rapport of the subject looking straight into the lens and therefore into the viewer’s mind and heart. So you’ll see both approaches in my photos. And remember that in the 1950s, cameras were rare in the islands and villages. Perhaps there was one photographer in the village. People loved to be photographed. It was like a special occasion – and often, it shows in their faces. They would ask you to take their picture.
You also show an affinity for maritime life and the seascape of Greece. Is that related to your love of travel?
It was clear from my first visit to Greece that the sea was a really important ingredient in the country’s geography and daily life – very different from a New York suburb. I quickly developed a special affection for the islands. Boats were essentially the only transport medium since island airports were unknown, with very few exceptions. I’ve slept nights on the deck of a little caïque but also have slept in the almost-Las-Vegas-casino-style suites on the overnight boats to Crete. The deck of a caïque offers the sounds of a lapping sea and the breeze, the creaking of a wooden boat, the birds in the morning, the soft swooshing of halyards. The Greek seas and their islands offer more beauty and interest than can fit in one lifetime! We did a book about the Wooden Boats of the Aegean with Tatiana Spinari and Annika Barbarigos, who works to save traditional shipbuilding skill in Greece. Rod Heikell wrote the introduction for the book.
The juxtaposition of your earlier images to today’s reality reveals a huge change in places such as Mykonos and Santorini, which evolved rapidly, aligning with developments in the tourist industry. Even under this money-making spell, each Greek island and destination developed differently. Which pockets of natural beauty and cultural originality are still charming to you? Are you still drawn to Greece for the same reasons?
It’s hard to name names because change is so rapid. Many once-isolated quiet bays now have a road, taverna, and beach umbrellas. But I have a great appreciation for the places that respect their architectural heritage, their landscapes, and their traditions. Foot paths, for example, are a valuable asset for off-season tourism, but some islands are oblivious to their value and destroy them. The islands, as you say, developed in different ways. They also started from different points. Each island used to have its own culture. It was as if they were worlds apart. And in the age of sailing, they were, in a sense. Each developed its own architecture, its own way of building walls, its own songs and poems and dances, and weaving. TV, high-speed ferries, the internet, cell phones have changed all that. But yes. They have developed their tourist business in different ways, appealing to different types of clients and pocketbooks. One could have fun characterizing in a word or two the market “positioning” of each of them.
Through photos, books, and exhibitions such as the ones on The Last Monk of Strofades, it seems that you also hope for awareness; for people taking action and appreciate more their monuments, traditions, and cultural uniqueness, especially in Greece where natives take these for granted. Is that among your goals?
In the case of the Strofades, Katerina Lymperopoulou and I had exactly the same three goals. One was to draw attention to the unique Byzantine monument and its urgent need for repairs. Another was to pay tribute to the remarkable individual who virtually singlehandedly maintained the monastery over many decades. And the third was to bring attention to the bird life and forest lands that are so unique to this tiny island. Katerina and I were thrilled beyond words last week when the Academy of Athens awarded a prize for our book. We accepted this great honor on behalf of the more than two dozen individuals and organizations who brought their knowledge and skills to the publication. You will recall that in 1717 after a terrible Turkish massacre of the monks, the seat of the monastery was “temporarily” moved to Zakynthos, where it remains today. Also moved were the remains of Saint Dionysios, who had been buried in accordance with his last wishes in the Chapel of St George at the Strofades Monastery. He had been the abbot of the Monastery. It would be a tragedy if this unique example of a fortified church in the Hellenic world and its rich history were to be lost.
What impact do you think had the pandemic on people’s lives, and how have you experienced so far these adverse times of social distancing and isolation as a photographer and as a person?
The effect has, of course, been devastating on the world, both economically and psychologically. I spent the first 8 months of the pandemic in New York. Since October, I have been in Athens. I am working on archives and books. Our dog likes long walks in the hills.
It seems that you have several projects in the pipeline as well as countless photos you want to include in upcoming publications and combine them in a meaningful way. What comes next?
The next book is about Kassos in the 1960s. I am working with two amazing Kassiots: Marilena Kedros and Nikolaos Mastropavlos. Next is a children’s book about a very unusual dog who was born on the Acropolis and liked to visit the monuments with us. Then, a work tentatively titled Portraits of the Greeks 1954-2020. Then, 40 years of photographs of Patmos. I am continuing to make progress on The Greeks and Their Seas project as well. I think we will try to do it in one volume.
While some of your projects have been delayed by the pandemic, you decided to use Instagram as a modern way to communicate with your audience. Is it because of this social medium’s primarily “visual” character?
March 30th, 2021 will mark the one-year anniversary of my posting on Instagram (@mccabephotos). The medium is addictive. At times it’s humbling, for example, when one of your favorite images draws a yawn! I have some regular followers whose loyalty and engagement I really appreciate. There are some wonderful images shown on Instagram. A big bonus: I have gotten some identifications of people and places that are very valuable. A lady traveling deck-class on the “Despina” with her accordion in 1954 was identified by her daughter. I think some of the inputs from Instagram will be useful in selecting and captioning images for books. It is also fun to see the consistency and creativity in the images of some of those photographers I follow.
In your work, we see a majority of black & white photos but also many incredible color ones – especially portraits and scenes from 1957 (Skyros, Syros, Poros, etc.). Was color photography in the 50s something super special that required the latest in technology? How was that technically possible at the time, and which do you prefer the most; color or black & white photos?
As I said, I photographed only in black and white until 1957, when the National Geographic Society asked me to take backup photos in the Cyclades. I had my own darkroom developing and printing black and white photos. I switched cameras and formats, going from a Rolleiflex to a Nikon, from a square format to a rectangle. From B&W to color. I quickly discovered that composing in color is very different than composing in black and white, and that composing in a rectangle was very different than in a square. Squares are easier for me, so another reason to like Instagram. I also was surprised by how little latitude Kodachrome had. In the Cyclades, with white houses and a dark sea, you had real challenges. I started experimenting with digital photography quite early and with equipment that was not the most advanced at the time (understatement!). It gave me an opportunity to do a lot of experimenting with exposure and composition without wasting film. The downside now is that I have some images that I like very much, but the resolution is very poor. I did one book (The Ramble in Central Park) with a combination of film and digital. All the experts who said it would be easy to tell the difference were wrong. The book won a nice prize in the Nature category. It was fun walking in Central Park with a Rolleiflex. Older people knew what it was and would greet you knowingly. Children thought you were a man from Mars. Ask a kid today why the Rolleiflex has two lenses, and you will confound them. I photograph only in color today. Sometimes for some purpose, I will change color to black and white later. And sometimes I regret it!
You seem to maintain a great relationship with technology. What’s the difference – in terms of the result and the process – between photos taken with an analog and those taken with a digital camera?
At the beginning of the digital revolution, the cameras I used were clearly inferior to film. But today, digital wins in my book. And very often, film results are processed and/or enhanced with digital technology, so it raises the question of why even start with film. One could argue that the lightweight Rolleiflex wins over a digital camera of similar weight in terms of resolution, and that to equal a Rollei’s film resolution, you need a very heavy and expensive digital camera. But progress in digital is so rapid that I wouldn’t make a bet on that proposition.
Your long career, which started very early in your life, is graced with real gems from various standpoints (ethnographic, historical, anthropological, archaeological, sociological, environmental, and so on). Which were your references and icons along the way? Your classical studies, other accomplished photographers, your family, or other sources of inspiration?
For many years my motivation was the prospect of having a photo published in a newspaper. I sought out accidents of one kind or another, and I found a few over the years. But at one point, I discovered the US Camera Annual. Every year they published a book showcasing the recent work of the great photographers of the era. I used to look forward to each new edition and would regularly study the old volumes. They can still be found on eBay and are still interesting and impressive. It was before Photoshop, so there are no gimmicks! Of course, the work of Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis were a source of inspiration. I think the photos I have published of Antarctica, China, and Cuba may reflect that influence. I could never adequately thank Willy Ronis for his kindness in making the final selection of photos for my book Greece 1954-1965: Images of an Enchanted Land. My family complains that I only take candid photos of them and ignore opportunities to photograph them dressed up. Old habits.
Is there a place you haven’t been to in Greece?
I haven’t been to Antikythera, Gyaros or Gioura, Makronissos, Gavdos, Trikeri, Petalas, Agios Efstratios, Skyropoula, Psara, and quite a few others.