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Hold on to standards and keep that self-belief: Eamonn McCabe on photography


© Eamonn McCabe



Respected photographer and former picture editor of The Guardian newspaper in the UK, Eamonn McCabe, died suddenly on 2 October 2022. As a tribute to him, I reproduce my interview first published on the Canon Professional Network in 2017.


Eamonn McCabe fondly remembers his time as Picture Editor of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. It was there where he would occasionally watch the late Jane Bown ­– photographer at sister paper The Observer – carefully deliberate over a portrait and capture the sitter with nothing more than window light. McCabe reckons we can still learn from that approach.


“She said never take a picture until you are ready and make sure the background was as good as you could make it,” he recalls. “Without light you’re stuffed, and many of her great portraits were taken at the Garrick Club when The Observer had a few bob.”


He continues: “They used to take them to lunch and Jane would have ten minutes at the end. They were all smiling because they’d had too many glasses of wine but they were placed by a bit of window light. She would find a lovely bit of reflected light – not direct light – and her whole thing was to get somebody by this window, or maybe in the winter by an old Anglepoise lamp she used to nick from the picture editor.”


It was a love of rock and roll that first got McCabe into photography. His teenage years were spent listening to music and drumming in a band. But then a gig at Leeds University in 1970, where The Who were headlining, changed everything. A chance shot of guitar frontman Pete Townshend sparked an all-consuming interest in photography and the rest, well, you know how it goes…


“I think photography should be a slow process,” he rues, “but we’ve been seduced by smaller, lighter and cheaper cameras and we use them as notebooks – which is fine. But we never go back and take the proper picture. Tourists are just taking a picture to show their parents or whatever, but I think us professionals have got to be more careful and not be seduced by the latest bit of kit that will make our life quicker.”


McCabe has spent a long time thinking about this, and recently presented a three-part television series on photography called ‘Britain in Focus’ and ended it looking at the impact of photography in social media, showing how when it is done well, it can be entirely credible. “I talked to a young student photographer, Molly Boniface, who uses Instagram and she’s doing it beautifully; her pictures are cared for. Her pictures are thought about as opposed to just sending a picture of her dinner off to somebody. They say that the best camera is the one you’ve got with you and that will often be a phone.”


What makes a classic image?

I ask McCabe to define a classic image and to pick out one of his own favourites. “One that lasts!” comes the answer. “I do talks now,” he explains, “And I show pictures of the table tennis player I took in 1978 (Li Chen Shi with his high serve) and it still looks as good as the day I took it.”


Sport was McCabe’s entry into professional photography and in the late 1970s to mid-1980s his name was eponymous with the artful sports image. But in 1985 that all changed. McCabe’s biggest challenge – both professional and personal – was the tragic Heysel stadium disaster in Belgium. Documenting the unfolding events changed his direction, as he explains…


“I loved sports and that was going to be one of the biggest games of my life: Juventus v Liverpool. In the very exotic town of Brussels. Football on TV is two a penny now but it’s hard to remember back to ’85 when football was exotic. You never saw these players before, unless it was a final in Europe or something. And Juventus being very colourful with their flares and the flags and all that, is what I wanted to photograph. I did all that for an hour and then it all kicked off.”


He continues: “I don’t think I felt it on the day or even the next week, but a year or so after I felt that ‘If that’s sport, you can have it.’ I went in as a sports photographer and came home as a news photographer. I went to do the joy of winning a cup and I ended up shooting 39 bodies dying. That’s something I never wanted to do again.”


“So I went into picture editing at The Guardian which is where I had cut my teeth in the early ’70s. I did freelance work for them back then. It was where my politics were and I learned from the greats – Denis Thorpe, Peter Johns, who’s sadly has just died, and the late Don McPhee. And so I went there and I said ‘look, I know I’m only a sports specialist but I think I have the confidence to argue for good stuff in the paper.’ And The Guardian was struggling against ‘The Indie’ [The Independent] then. The Indie was strong on quality and had great printing and no advertising so they could use the pictures really well. So I went in and we took them on. And to be fair to us we did well even though our printing was terrible, but we had some great photographers and we made a mark. And, in photography terms, if you think back to 1988 to, say, 2000, we had a really good time and I was able to argue because I believed in it.”


I ask McCabe if photographers make the best picture editors. “I think they do,” he replies. “Up until I came along, The Guardian had been picture edited by former news people. Almost like a budget exercise. And now, of course, newspapers are in crisis. The whole world is changing.”


“We shot ourselves in the foot really,” he reflects. “We created a great website and it’s free. So why should people buy a paper? So I left when we were selling 500,000 copies and now we’re selling about 180 [thousand]. Now, it’s not because I’ve left, it’s because people can get it all off the web. The problem with The Guardian is that they can’t charge for it because if we charge for the online, everyone would just go off to the BBC, which you could argue doesn’t have the style or the wit or, dare I say, sometimes the wisdom of The Guardian. But people don’t want to pay two quid or a quid even.”


The changing role of the photographer

I remark on the rise of citizen journalism and how the traditional role of the photographer is changing as much as the medium itself. “Some of the best news pictures have come from people caught up in tragedies [taking images] on their phone,” McCabe admits. “So us news photographers can’t complain because those people are there and, as I said earlier, the best camera you’ve got is the one that’s working and in your hand. I remember when the Pan Am Lockerbie terrorist plane crash happened. The first picture I put on the front of The Guardian was nicked off the telly. And it was just a burning croft. It was out of focus but it was red and it said danger. The first colour picture The Guardian ever published was of an earthquake in Japan and it was all out of focus but it looked all right. You get away with stuff for a day. Day two and you’ve got to get it right.”


He continues: “We have to be careful about the whole authenticity of photography. Is it genuine? I remember with pictures coming into The Guardian we had to have an eyewitness [to confirm provenance]. Now, I trusted Reuters and The Associated Press because of their name and their status. But how do you judge your pictures that aren’t labelled AP or Reuters or whatever? It’s very tricky. I mean, there are agencies out there that only sell pictures from mobile phones. That’s the worry: the authenticity. How do we know that some kid hasn’t worked on it in a bedroom on his computer?”


Going digital

McCabe is still very much a photographer and enjoys the benefits of digital. “When digital came along I just settled on the EOS 5D Mark II; it just suited me. I still use it now and I don’t know how old it is but it is very solid, it always works and the dials don’t switch on it. I’ve used other cameras where you pick it up and it’s gone on to video mode or whatever. What I need and what all pros need is a camera that, when you pick it up, it just works.”


He laughs: “I did a wedding which, even at my age is still nerve wracking, but I could just tell within two frames what the exposure was and then I just shot the whole wedding like that and my friend, who I did it for, was as happy as a sand girl. So yes, I can’t deny that the EOS 5D Mark II just works for me.”


“The lens I feel most comfortable with is a EF50mm f/1.2,” he reveals.” But it’s a tricky lens because you’ve got to be spot on with it. I’ve got an EF85mm f/1.8 which, if I’m in a hurry, that’s the one I use. The 50mm is a beautiful bit of glass but I’ve just got to watch myself when I’m using it.”


“I don’t do any darkroom stuff any more though,” he reflects. “So much of my work now is for a book or an exhibition and I let them print it. I’m a reasonable printer but I think that specialist printers can interpret your photographs so much better. The late Larry Bartlett printed a portfolio for me in 1978 and 70 percent of me winning the sports photographer of the year award that year was down to him. The way he presented my pictures just made the difference.”


We finish by talking about great advice and McCabe ponders his response. “Always be polite to people and do a deal with them,” he replies. “Say ‘If I can get you just by this window for five minutes you can go.’ Focus on things you are really passionate about. Whether it’s music, sport or roses, find a subject early on if you can that really enthuses you and when somebody tells you there are too many people doing it, don’t believe them. You have to believe you’re going to make it.”




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