Exotic Greece of the 1950s

Like frames from a black-and-white movie, images of Athens, the Greek countryside and the islands alternate in Robert McCabe’s photographic album. The time is the 1950s and the camera is recording a poor, barefoot yet dignified country, whose smiling eyes burn with liveliness and stubbornness. Behind the lens is a 20-year-old, wild-at-heart American, yearning to learn all about the world, from Antarctica to the Mediterranean sea. His encounter with Greece, however, is destined to be much more than a mere flirtation. Sixty years on, McCabe is still around. He ended up marrying a Greek, owning a house in Plaka and learning excellent Greek. Sitting at a downtown restaurant for a snack and a chat recently, the discussion centered around an exhibition which effectively inaugurated the summer season at the Citronne Gallery on the island of Poros. Featuring 45 of his photographs stemming from his travels around Greece in 1955, 1957 and 1965, the exhibition showcases part of a grand European tour at the time when McCabe was a Princeton University student with a particular interest in ancient Greek cultural heritage. Through the foreign observer’s sharp gaze, McCabe photographed the land and its people, spanning the visual gamut from portraits to scenes from daily life, architecture and landscapes. Just before several plates landed on the table, McCabe pointed to a number of images which are part of the show. In one of these, a photogenic donkey clearly steals the show. There’s history here: As it turns out, the people of a town were planning to give the animal to Lyndon B. Johnson as a gift, during a visit to Greece by the American politician before he became president. Johnson’s security agents, however, did not allow the donkey on board. Subsequently, the animal reached celebrity status and enjoyed a princely existence. «There was something exotic about Greece back in those days. Tourism was a non-existent term and no matter where I went, people were incredibly hospitable. I remember in 1961, when the mayor of Ios offered his own bed to a New York doctor who was in our group. Could you imagine something similar happening today? It was hospitality in the Homeric sense of the word and it had remained unaltered for thousands of years.» Nevertheless, McCabe does not resort to the sweetness of nostalgia. Having followed the country and its people for decades, he observed the islands welcoming millions of tourists in the summertime and saw the changes in the locals’ faces. While the country lost its simple nature and took on nouveau riche attitudes, the photographer still cares for the place and uses kind words to describe it. «Greece’s complete transformation was only natural. In the 1960s, I had come across five French tourists on Ios. I got so upset that I left the island. There are still some places which maintain their human identity, however, places like Zagorohoria.» Born in Chicago in 1934, McCabe was raised in the New York area, where he still spends six months a year. His father worked for a photographic publication and gave his six-year-old son his first camera. Besides the time spent in the dark room, the camera never left McCabe’s side. The photographer shot his first images of Europe during a journey across France, Italy and Greece in 1954. He returned to Greece in 1955, 1957 and 1965, while in 1959 he reached Antarctica. During one of the most pessimistic periods in modern Greek history, it is very pleasant to observe the country from a caique’s bow, following McCabe’s gaze. The exhibition at the Citronne Gallery on Poros runs to May 12.

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