From June 10 to June 16, 2023, the Embassy of Greece in the Netherlands organized the exhibition Greece: Images of an Enchanted Land in the Atrium in The Hague. The exhibition showed some of the best photos of the American photographer Robert McCabe. I was asked by the Greek ambassador ms. Catherina Ghini to give a short introduction to this exhibition.
In May, to prepare for this presentation, I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting Robert McCabe in person in Athens. We had a very interesting conversation about his work, and about Greece in general. We share a passion for Greece, which goes back several decades. I will tell you what I learned from that marvelous conversation in Athens and in the meantime share with you the content of my presentation at the exhibition on Monday June 12.
1954: the first trip to Greece.
Robert McCabe was born in Chicago in 1934 but grew up close to New York City. His father was working for a newspaper. When Robert was four years old, he received his first camera, as a present. It was a Kodak Baby Brownie. A small basic camera, made of Bakelite.
In the beginning, the little boy was interested in news. He gathered images of hurricanes, drownings and car accidents. But after a while, his interests shifted to people and landscapes. And then, in 1954, a life changing event occurred. His older brother Charles, studying at Princeton, got an invitation from a Greek friend, to spend two weeks in Greece. Robert was lucky, his brother asked to join him on this trip to this far and mythical place across the ocean.
The two boys went by cargo ship to Le Havre, in France. This trip of course took several weeks. In France, they travelled to Paris, and from there took the train to Venice, where they got on a boat to Piraeus and finally arrived in mid-century Athens. Robert’s strongest memory of those first days in Athens is, how much at home he felt. In what was then a pretty exotic city. There was not one traffic light, few cars, only one police man. Athens was basically like a big village. Not the city with millions of inhabitants it is today. They had planned also to travel to Egypt and Italy. They wanted to do a version of the classical ‘Grand Tour’, in the footsteps of Lord Byron, Goethe and many other famous romantic artists and poets. But none of that happened.
Love at first sight.
They cancelled all their plans and decided to stay in Greece. Just to be able to stay a bit longer. “It was love at first sight”, as Robert explained to me.
Because of his love for photography, his parents had given him a new camera for this trip. A Rolleiflex, a high-end, German made camera. So of course he took a lot of pictures of this exotic country they were exploring in those weeks. Even to this day, he told me, he still regrets not bringing more film with him on this first trip.
The love for Greece was so intens and strong that Robert, back home, decided to switch from English literature to Classics. But the university wouldn’t allow this because he didn’t know any Latin or Greek. Robert then remained at the English department but decided to write his thesis on Lord Byron and Greece. That was his way to spend every minute on Greek history and culture. So, that’s how it all began.
His photographs of this first trip to Greece were exhibited the same year at the library of Princeton University. Needless to say, he kept on returning to Greece each summer. In those years, in Greece he sometimes felt like an explorer, discovering a new civilization. During those trips, often together with his brother, they tried to visit as many places and islands. They preferred searching for places without any tourists. For example when they first arrived in Ios – now a very popular island in the summer – when they got off the boat, they saw four French tourists. Too crowded, they decided, and they left.
One day, someone of the National Geographic Society had seen his pictures on an exhibition and asked him to travel to the Cyclades and take pictures for an already planned article about this group of islands. And that of course was a crucial moment in his career.
Over the years, McCabe became a true ambassador for Greece, showing the world the things that made him fall in love with the country so deeply, through his exhibitions and publications. The bond with Greece became even stronger due to his marriage in 1963 to the Greek girl Constantina, or Dina, his lifelong partner.
His photographs of Greece are of great value. For a couple of reasons. One reason is that a lot of pictures were taken long before tourism started. Back in the fifties, sixties, Greece was still unspoiled. People on the islands lived from fishing, and not from tourism. Robert could visit all the antiquities easily. He could come close, walk through the Parthenon, touch the pillars. Where now, we have to keep our distance. Of course to preserve the precious stone and marble.
A second reason why – in my opinion – his work is of high value, is that he is really interested in people. In his photographs, we see the marble worker doing his job in the ancient temple. The lady on the dirt road close to the Acropolis. The barefoot children playing in the fields. The fisherman busy with his kaïk, a small boat. In a way, by including people in his images, Robert has given us a visual anthropological record of Greece. His work is a sort of, time capsule, if you will.
And last but not least, his pictures are extremely beautiful. Each one of them. The love for the country, and his profound knowledge, is reflected in his pictures. He knows the Greek light, the typical light that you will not find anywhere else. And he has mastered the art of capturing it.
A vanishing Greece, still to be found.
Although I love his photographs and study one of his magnificent books (he has published more then 17 until now), his work also has a strong hint of sadness. Melancholy I would say. Not by accident a Greek word, melancholia. Because the photographs give us a last glimpse of a Greece which probably is vanishing.
Greece has rapidly changed over the last decades. The need to move forward, the urge to escape from poverty in the fifties, after the war. All these things have changed Greece. Modern buildings are filling the beautiful landscape. The bulldozer and cement mixer are more common than the threshing floor and the vineyards. The donkey has been replaced by the car. Quiet fishing villages have turned into a hustle of tourist shops, hotels and bars.
Tourism is of course both a blessing and a curse. But luckily for us, Robert recorded this vanishing Greece.
Fortunately, some places remain almost untouched and unspoiled. Small islands you can only reach by boat. Remote villages high up in the mountains. As Robert told me, and I agree with him, there are still some regions that are beautiful and quiet. There are still islands where the landscape is almost identical to the way it was centuries ago. Threshing floors, donkeys and vineyards, and fishermen with kaïks, can still be found. Of course, we will not tell you the location of those places, our personal secrets. I would say: travel to Greece, go there and explore. I’m sure you will find them.
More about Robert McCabe.
You can also buy one of his beautiful books. He recently published Greece After the War: Years of Hope (2023). This volume, published on the occasion of an important exhibition at the European Culture Centre of Delphi, collects 118 of the most compelling photographs that McCabe took in Greece between 1954 and 1965. The book also includes essays by the literary scholar Panagiotis Roilos, the journalist Katerina Lymperopoulou, and McCabe himself. Greece After the War: Years of Hope is an essential visual document of modern European history.
Some other books with McCabe’s photos from Greece:
-A Postcard from Kasos. 1965 (2022).
-Santorini: Portrait of a Vanished Era (2020).
-Mykonos: Portrait of a Vanished Era (2019).
-The Last Monk of the Strofades. Memories from an unknown Greek island (2019).
-Chronography: 180 years Archeological Society of Athens (2018).
-Mycenae: From Myth to History (2016).
-Greece: Images of an Enchanted Land (1954-1965), (2006).