The award-winning photographer Eamonn McCabe, former head of photography at the Guardian, has died aged 74. He won the Sports Photographer of the Year award four times and was named News Photographer of the Year in 1985 for his work on the Heysel stadium disaster. McCabe became the Guardian’s head of photography in 1988 and was named picture editor of the year six times. Since 2000 his work has focused mainly on portraiture for the Guardian and Observer. In 2001 he returned to freelance work for the Guardian and other newspapers and magazines. Many of his portraits are held in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
McCabe joined the Observer as a sports photographer in 1976 after a brief stint in the music industry. He fell in love with sports photography, later recalling: “One Saturday they were a rare photographer for a Spurs game, my local heroes. Wasn’t Jimmy Greaves the best player? Much to their surprise, I got a decent picture of a rare Martin Chivers goal. which was published in several Sunday papers the next day, and got one at Spurs’ last home game. I was hooked. The excitement was back in photography.”
Our sports photographer Tom Jenkins says: “When I think of Eamonn, one quote always comes to mind. This has been something of a mantra for me throughout my career as a sports photographer and he told me many times when he was my photo editor at the Guardian: ‘You make your own luck, son.’ It’s his version of golfer Gary Player’s famous quote: ‘The more I practice, the happier I am.'”
In terms of practical photography, Jenkins says, this means always looking for and striving for good photos and always being prepared. “If you’re not there, ready for the picture, you never will be. This is perfectly captured in one of his earlier shots, the classic 1977 Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot, where every element of the picture works itself in the right place, it is shown, and to remove it the woman has a great ax.
Jenkins adds that formality and a sense of humor played a big role in McCabe’s athletic work, “like when he photographed Bristol City’s bald goalkeeper John Shaw looking like he was about to head into the center circle. Eamonn was always looking for something different. he was looking, he was never satisfied with the obvious pictures.
Jenkins says McCabe’s beautiful shot of boxer Sylvester Mittee wrapping his arms in bandages before a training session is another example: “A close-up moment that probably no other photographer at the time would have bothered with.”
McCabe said of Mittee’s photo: “It was taken in a small, dark boxing gym… When I went back for his sparring session, he was just putting on the last pieces of tape to protect his hands. I took a 180mm lens, too long for indoor work, but it paid off. The effect was to remove everything except the band and the webbing of his fingers. If I had used a shorter lens, it would have been more in focus and the image would not have been as strong.”
McCabe was equally adept at capturing a striking portrait of a sporting figure as he was at depicting historic moments, such as the sinking of the Cambridge Boat Race crew.
Jenkins recalls: “He always knew exactly when it was time to focus on the real news story of the day, like his haunting, horrifying picture of the Juventus fans in the Heysel disaster of 1985. All that to photograph a game. football was ready, he quickly realized what was going on and managed to take a few shots. As he later said: ‘I was there doing my job.’ It wasn’t nice but he knew he had to do it.”
McCabe said of the incident: “I went as a sports photographer, excited to cover Juventus against Liverpool, and ended up a news photographer, as it all turned into a horrific disaster in which 39 fans were killed. I will never forget the young Juventus fan standing alone on the balcony, surrounded by dead men’s boots, shouting for his friend, ‘Mario, Mario…’ I never bought the films from the game itself. They didn’t seem to be very important.”
It was in the late 80s that he began to move towards landscape and portrait photography.
“I’ll always think of him primarily as a sports photographer,” says Jenkins. “That’s where he made his name, the genre where he was most innovative. Who, in 1978, would have taken a picture like that of table tennis? He had such a knowledge of the sport, an understanding of what was happening and what could happen next. . It goes back to making his own luck. That made him a really fantastic photographer.”
From 2000 McCabe began to focus on artistic portraits. Roger Tooth, the Guardian’s post-McCabe head of photography, said: “Eamonn was a brilliant photographer and photo editor with a natural ability to capture or identify the unusual or unseen. With his natural warmth, he was always happy wherever he was. He was also a great teacher who allowed his students and his Guardian team to express themselves. His touch was light – he always said that a life in photography was much better than work. However, his sincerity hid the seriousness about his work. His wonderfully original sports photographs for the Observer and his later portraits for the Guardian are carefully planned.
Tooth adds: “He loved the clean simplicity of black-and-white photography, but for his later portraits he embraced large-scale color film. He used Hassleblad and made scans of his work while taking digital photos of the newspaper.
“While most of his photos were pre-planned or taken from a pre-determined location in a stadium or court, he was also an eyewitness to news events,” Tooth recalls. “He had a unique ability to be in the right place at the right time. He always liked a direct approach with his portraits. He liked to confront his subjects with his camera and by extension the audience. He tried to travel with light, something that became more difficult when he began using medium format and lighting his subjects for color photography. Nevertheless, he worked quickly – his background was in press photography where speed is essential.
Lisa Allardice, editor of the Guardian Review from 2007 to 2016, says: “The story of Eamonn McCabe was legendary. I once spent a very uncomfortable hour trying to interview the wonderful Doris Lessing in her quaint West Hampstead home. Eamonn arrives and he is immediately all smiles and giggles. She also offered him some tea. Although best known for his unforgettable portraits, he was game for a new series called Writers’ Rooms – portraits of writers’ studies, without the writer. Where the idea was initially met with skepticism – who wants to look at someone’s desk? – It turned out to be a big hit. Beryl Bainbridge, Seamus Heaney, Hilary Mantel – many giants of the world of books welcomed him to their private creative spaces, where he painted an intimate portrait of the author, although they are out of frame. The series had a small run in London’s West End and he had always hoped to turn them into a book. It was a pleasure to work with him both as an editor and as a writer.”
Guardian writer Simon Hattenstone says: “I loved working with him. It was the first time I felt like an adult. There have been many memorable trips – deep into Ireland to meet Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, to the beautiful Larzac plateau in the south of France to see activist farmer José Bové, to Germany to meet the monster Lou Reed. to watch. Sometimes we knew the heroes… We knew we were lucky with this game.
“Eamonn was amazingly quick, he never panicked, and he was fantastically anonymous,” says Hattenstone. “Many times the picture was taken before the subject had time to smile or stiffen. When we started working together, he used an old Hasselblad camera, which only allowed him to take a few pictures. It was a great discipline. Nothing could be lost.” .I’ve never seen Eamonn get angry over a photo. Writers and photographers often argue over time, or who goes first. We never did. My favorite moments were when he shot and I talked.
“There was nothing brainy or clever about Eamonn’s photography. But he caught people perfectly. Check out this gallery – Hilary Mantel’s curiosity, Lou Reed’s coolness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s gentleness, David Bellamy’s acting, Iris Murdoch and John Bayley’s romance.
“For me, the best feeling in journalism is working closely as a team with a photographer you trust. It’s just the two of us, bound together to get it right, and for the other don’t spoil it. I’ve never felt as close to a team as I did when I was working with Eamonn.
Nicholas Wroe recalls when he first met McCabe: “He flew to Paris on the Eurostar in early 1999. He was moving from legendary sports photography and photo editing to legendary portrait work and we were commissioned to profile the writer and art historian John Berger. The interview will be 4,000 words long. “It’s a great caption for my portrait,” he laughed. For the next 15 years or so we traveled the world together and, with the writer, met other musicians, artists and even photographers.A passionate fight between Eamonn and David Bailey was long remembered.
Wroe adds: “Eamonn knew Bailey, of course, but he usually referred to our subjects, no matter how famous, as ‘the big man’ or ‘the big woman’, sometimes ‘Sir’ – “a little more like that. sir’ – when he challenged them to put on a scarf, find another pose or turn up their coat. The subject was loved and the result spoke for itself: Desmond Tutu in pain with his head in his hands, Jan Morris laughing in the garden… Alfred Brendel at his piano.
“We last had contact this spring when I sent Eamonn a picture of a Paris restaurant we were going to while waiting for our train home. ‘Good times,’ he replied. They were,” Wroe recalls. . “I miss his headline writing and I miss him. He was a ‘great man’ as much as the people he photographed.”