Pioneering photographer Robert McCabe first visited Greece in 1954 and captured a way of life that that has now all but vanished. Sixty iconic images from his travels around the country will be exhibited at the Hellenic Centre
starting today, under the aegis of the Centre and The Museum of Cycladic Art. After important exhibitions in the USA and Europe, this is the first UK showing of McCabe's work.
Greece has changed dramatically since the artist made the pictures some fifty years ago. During what he describes as an enchanted time, McCabe recorded the landscape, villages and traditions of a country that was recovering from civil war, and where tourists were few and far between. The islands and villages still maintained their ancient and distinctive traditions in music, architecture, poetry, embroidery, cooking, ship building.
There was something exotic about Greece back in those days, he recalls. 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 Homeric hospitality.
The warmth with which he was greeted suffuses McCabe's images of religious ceremonies and villagers in their daily routines. There are strong scenes of an almost Biblical way of life. A collection of seascapes is punctuated with images of deck class passengers, evocative of Stieglitz' Steerage but 50 years later, and sailors silhouetted against the bow of old wooden caiques. The images of Athens, and of ancient and medieval monuments, present a unique vision of well-known scenes.
"For me, the most successful photographs represent a form of poetry, and go well beyond the depiction of a person, an object, or a place, or even a satisfying visual composition. Just as a short poem can create a vivid emotional experience, so too can an image. Such photographs can evoke in our souls much more than the direct visual content of a photograph", says McCabe. His images go far beyond the simply documentary: subjects are elevated through silhouetting, perspective and composition, creating a series of highly memorable, iconic images
McCabe's photographs of Greece, made with a Rolleiflex and Plus-X film, are assembled in the book Greece: Images of an Enchanted Land, 1954-1965, published in the US and Greece and now in its fourth printing. Key images amongst them have also appeared in numerous books by other authors.
McCabe's other publications attest to his irrepressible spirit of adventure and yearning for new experiences. DeepFreeze! A Photographer's Antarctic Journey in the Year 1959 (published July 2010) records the relatively primitive infancy of the US Antarctic research program. McCabe captures the "magic hour" light that lasts virtually 24 hours at that time of year, when the sun hangs low on the horizon, casting long shadows, glowing on faces and glaciers. On the Road with a Rollei in the '50s (Patakis, 2007) offers breath-taking images from across Europe and USA, using brilliant attention to light and composition to couple everyday scenes with iconic sites. Weekend In Havana: An American Photographer in the Forbidden City (2007) reflects the striking mix between past and present that characterizes this country and reveals the human faces of life under Castro's regime. His forthcoming book [Abbeville, Spring 2011] is entitled The Ramble in Central Park: A Wilderness West of Fifth and offers photos, texts, and maps about New York's celebrated public park.
Born in Chicago in 1934, McCabe was raised in the New York area, where he still spends six months a year, the remainder of the year being in Greece. His father worked for a photographic publication and gave his five-year-old son his first camera. 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.