The photographer discovered Greece while he was a college student in 1954.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost events in the photography calendar, The Photography Show 2018, organized by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers in New York in early April, featured a section on Robert McCabe, renowned for his photographs of Greece, at the pavilion of Paris gallery Sit Down.
The American photographer first fell in love with Greece in the 1950s and has divided his time between the two countries ever since, giving us some of the most candid and striking images we have of the country before the advent of mass tourism.
Sit Down presented a selection from the black-and-white series “Greece, Images of an Enchanted Land, 1955,” which came out in a book in 2006 and depicts the islands as lost paradises. McCabe’s approach to the then-pristine natural landscapes may have something of an elegiac quality, but his depictions of the people reveal the daily struggle for survival in stark tones: faces creased by wrinkles, intense, clear eyes, people toiling, children getting by on the basics yet still smiling, and in the background, we see ports, ancient monuments and public buildings or spaces.
One of the photographs that stole the show at the Manhattan exhibition was that of a donkey, which had played a role in a charming diplomatic incident. In was 1963 and US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was in Thessaloniki during a visit to Greece. He went to see the American Farm School and presented the administration there with a new tractor. The school responded by giving Johnson the donkey. Instead of transporting the young animal back to the States, Johnson decided that it should stay in Greece and enjoy the privileges of diplomatic immunity. The donkey was never put to work and led a long and happy life at the American Farm School.
McCabe was born in Chicago in 1934 and was introduced to photography at the age of 5 by his father, who worked in the publishing sector and bought his son a Kodak camera. He discovered Greece while he was in college in 1954 and was so taken by the place that he returned the following year. He went on to cement his relationship with the country by marrying a Greek woman and buying homes in Athens and on the island of Patmos.
In an interview with the New York Greek community’s newspaper The National Herald published on April 5, McCabe likens photography to poetry.
“For me, the most successful photographs represent a form of poetry,” he said. “Just as a short poem can create a vivid emotional experience, so too can an image.”
The photographer will be returning to Greece soon, where he is planning to complete his latest project, a book on the Strofades, a pair of islands off the coast of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea, which is written and researched by journalist Katerina Lymberopoulou.