Celebrated photographer and picture editor Eamonn McCabe has died aged 74. McCabe was epitome of a photographer's photographer – someone who everyone in the world of image making respected and admired.
McCabe had several different successful careers in photography. He first made his name as an award-winning sports photographer working for the UK Sunday newspaper The Observer in the 1970s and 80s - where he earned he won the Sports Photographer of the Year on four occasions.
He then turned to the other side of the newspaper picture desk becoming picture editor for The Guardian. But he refused to hang up his camera, becoming a successful portrait photographer.
In recent years, he is best remembered, perhaps, as a commentator and authority on photography. He presented the three-part series Britain in Focus: A Photographic History for the BBC, and in 2019 co-wrote a book on the history of aerial photography.
In memory of McCabe, we are reprinting an interview with him that was first published in Digital Camera magazine in 2010…
Eamonn McCabe in his own words
The following was first published in Digital Camera magazine in 2010. Eamonn McCabe was talking to Geoff Harris.
We don’t have many things to thank Alvin Stardust for, but this spangly embodiment of 1970s naff apparently helped to persuade Eamonn McCabe to become a press photographer.
“When I was younger, I was a very keen music photographer, but when people like Alvin Stardust and Gary Glitter came along, I got very disillusioned with the music scene – so that was why I got into sport.”
• Born in London in 1948, Eamonn McCabe was named Sports Photographer of the Year four times between 1978 and 1984.
• In 1988 he became picture editor of The Guardian and went on to win Picture Editor of the Year five times.
• Returning to full-time photography, his speciality was portraits. His work often appeared in the national press.
Anyone with an appreciation of great news and sports photography will recognise McCabe’s name: as a photographer and then picture editor at The Guardian, he’s been responsible for some of the most iconic press images of the past 30 years. ‘Intelligent’ is an adjective frequently applied to McCabe’s sports photography, but his approach is more than purely cerebral – he’s also got a visceral love of the subject, particularly when it comes to shooting the likes of football, rugby and boxing.
“I loved football, so it was easy to drift over from music photography in the early 1970s,” he remembers. “As with rock, I loved the unpredictability of it all.”
McCabe cut his teeth on local papers such as the Hampstead & Highgate Express, learning a lot in the process. “The papers taught me how to turn up on time, shoot to size and barter with people – so I learned about the business side of photography. Because of the area it covered, the Hampstead & Highgate Express was a bit like a local The Guardian. I used to cover Arsenal, Spurs and the Saracens rugby team before they got big.”
From Observer to director
McCabe’s influences were Ed Lacey, who died in the early 1980s and worked for The Guardian and The Telegraph, and Chris Smith of The Observer. “I was also a great admirer of the US magazine Sports Illustrated,” he recalls. “Their photographers had huge budgets, would light whole stadiums… I would try to do it with just a single flash! Looking back at my shots from that time, I can see I was a real observer, looking in from the outside. Now I’m more of a director. I’m old enough now to have the confidence to take portraits of people like Mick Jagger, and to direct them.”
As McCabe’s reputation grew, he graduated from local papers to The Guardian and The Observer. So which of his sports images is he most proud of? “It would probably be of a Chinese table tennis player in North London. Or the boxer Sylvester Mittee (see page 94), or the Cambridge boat crew sinking in 1978. The turning point for me was the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 – I’d gone there to cover a Liverpool/Juventus match, but I ended up photographing 39 people dying. I thought, ‘If this is sports photography, you can stuff it’.”
McCabe branched out into more general press photography, before reinventing himself again as a picture editor. Working on the other side of the fence, McCabe noticed a worrying trend among some press photographers. “I was disappointed that a lot of the photographers weren’t very aware of the work of other great photographers. I used to encourage them to go to galleries and exhibitions, but sometimes they just weren’t interested. It’s very important to study great photography; you’ll miss a trick if you don’t.”
Video killed the stills star?
Despite his frustration at some of his contributors’ cultural ignorance, McCabe enjoyed his time as a picture editor. “It was
a good time to be a picture editor in the 1980s and 1990s; there was a lot of debate about how we covered disasters, for instance. And it was easier in the pre-digital age. You could avoid marking the shots you didn’t like on the contact sheets you’d take to the editorial meetings; now, everyone gathers around the PC to see what the photographer has submitted, and often they’ll pick the images you hate!”
1 Focus on the eyes
In portraits; I like to get my subjects gazing to camera. If you’re nervous as a photographer, your subjects look away.
2 Experiment with light…
…but keep it simple; I just use one softbox with one light source. If you complicate things with too many lights, you can get into such a state that it will affect the picture.
3 Watch your back
You really must get the background right when taking photographs of people. Indeed, I’m a great believer that if you get a good background, you’re halfway towards getting a good portrait. It’s pointless taking a nice shot of someone and then spoiling it with extraneous objects such as trees sticking out of the tops of their heads in the background!
McCabe also worries that the stills photographer could become a thing of the past as picture editors resort to pulling images from HD video feeds. “It’s happening more and more, and you can certainly imagine a time when all the still shots of the FA Cup final are just pulled from video.”
Since leaving the picture desk at The Guardian, McCabe has devoted more and more time to shooting portraits, either for press commissions or for his own projects. His portraits are mainly in black and white: “I love its shape and form for portraits – the black-and-white portraits of Irvine Penn or Edward Weston still stand up today, and they continue to inspire me.”
McCabe now feels he has the maturity and experience to do portraits properly. “Also, I enjoy meeting people whom I admire. When I was still a picture editor, I would volunteer to shoot artists, poets, writers… I love portraits of loners and mavericks; they’re the people who interest me.”
The ease of digital
All that time spent on picture desks has obviously sharpened McCabe’s critical eye, so what is it that makes him proud of a particular portrait? “I’m proud of a portrait if it lasts – if it’s fresh and it stands the test of time, then I’ve cracked it. People still enjoy the portraits I took of the writer Zadie Smith and the actor Jude Law, for example. The hardest job is taking a portrait of somebody who you wouldn’t recognize, like a writer or a poet who shuns the limelight.”
Something else that’s got harder in the celebrity age is access. “When taking a portrait of a famous sitter, you have to work really fast now, and deal with armies of PRs. That’s something else that’s changed for the worse. I only got 30 seconds to photograph Bill Gates, for example.”
McCabe found the transition to digital photography to be a fairly smooth one, and he’s now the satisfied owner of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. “It’s brilliant, but I do worry that the ease of working with digital means that you tend to just keep shooting away for the sake of it. Too easy isn’t always good for photographers. I’m great friends with the cartoonist Ronald Searle, who’s now in his nineties. He told me that when things get too comfortable, too easy, he’ll put a sticking plaster or something on his little finger – almost like a means of giving himself a kind of deliberate handicap.”
Looking back and forward
Returning to press photography, one of McCabe’s recent projects has been to compile the images for Decade, a lavishly produced retrospective of the past ten years in world history (the book is published by Phaidon). Some 500 photographs were chosen, tackling subjects ranging from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the death of Michael Jackson. How did McCabe find this mammoth task?
“Fascinating. I tried to recreate the thrill of Phaidon’s earlier book, Century. But instead of having to hunt through boxes and dusty photo archives, I did all my work on screen. Doing so, I noticed that a lot of great photos were still being taken, but not always being used – nowhere near as many photo essays are being published in news magazines. I tried to find a quirkiness, something beyond the obvious – Bob Martin’s shot of the diver leaving his artificial legs behind, for example.
McCabe is still shooting for The Guardian, but is spending more and more time on his own work – “experimenting with large-format cameras, portraits, lectures, exhibitions, and so on”. More books could be in the offing, too. One of his best-known works is The Making of Great Photographs.
“I looked this up on Amazon recently, and where it says, ‘Customers viewing this page might also be interested in...’, they had recommended a book on how to make great curries! I didn’t mind because I’m a big curry fan, too...”
You can view McCabe’s images at www.eamonnmccabe.co.uk (opens in new tab).