Eamonn McCabe: Three Lives Through The Lens

Cambridge swamped in the 1978 Boat Race, probably the most famous rowing picture taken by the photographer Eamonn McCabe, who had died suddenly aged 74.

9 October 2022

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd, a former Guardian sub-editor and the paper’s rowing correspondent for over twenty years, remembers the photographers’ photographer.

In the mid-1980s a revolution was going on in broadsheet Sunday and daily newspapers about making the best of new printing and photographic technology, and how best to display images on the page. Among the pioneers was Eamonn McCabe, a brilliant photographer whose three lives had a profound effect on the art and science of image-making that he loved. His sudden death at 74 has robbed us of a cheery craftsman and of a friend.

Eamonn McCabe, possibly a self-portrait. He covered three Olympic Games and won the coveted “Sports Photographer of the Year” award a record four times. As the Guardian’s picture editor, he won the “Picture Editor of the Year” title six times, another record. In 1985, McCabe was named “News Photographer of the Year” for his coverage of the Heysel Stadium disaster.

His first foray was to capture the grit and the joy of sport for the Observer. He also serviced the Guardian with midweek floodlit football pictures in the days when snappers had to rush their films to the office darkroom to see them in print next morning. Eamonn had the instinct to be in the right place and the eye to press the shutter at the right moment to capture a wicket flying, a table tennis ball in orbit on a black night, or a triumphant move that spelled disaster for the mover’s opponent. Any and every sort was his territory, for example rowing regattas where he took outstanding pictures such as his cracking portraits  of the world champion sculler Beryl Mitchell at full power. 

Beryl Crockford (racing as Beryl Mitchell), sculling medallist in the World Championships in 1981 and 1985.
“Lady of the Lake” – A photograph from the 1981 Lucerne regatta where Beryl Crockford (racing as Beryl Mitchell) won the gold medal for the single both days ahead of the Soviet and East German scullers.

For reporters, the best photographers were those who tuned into the message of the morning’s story and came home at the end of the day with the pictures that told it. Eamonn was one such, both in his work for the features and sport departments on the Guardian. He was a joy to work with, in the ‘field’ or in the office.

Luck, of course, also came into it. Eamonn and I were aboard the press launch following the 1978 Boat Race when Cambridge waterlogged as they passed under Barnes Bridge and slewed to a halt across the bows of our launch. We rescued some shocked and wet oarsmen, and hence wonderful McCabe images of the most recent sinking in the fixture. 

Another Boat Race adventure occurred in 1995 when the race was on April 1. Hammersmith Bridge happened to be partially wrapped in polythene for repairs, coinciding with the artist Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin. While Eamonn wrapped the whole bridge in the dark room, I cooked up a story about Christo’s artwork closing the bridge to river traffic, causing the crews to turn at the stake downstream of the bridge and return to Putney. Blues and the BBC were let in on the act, but sadly on the day editor Rusbridger pulled it in favour of an inferior jape. The full story finally reached HTBS in 2020.

The cover of the 1987 book, Eamonn McCabe: Photographer. McCabe was also Visiting Senior Fellow in Photography at the University of Suffolk, held an Honorary Doctorate of the University of East Anglia and Staffordshire University, and was an Honorary Professor at Thames Valley University. In 2017, he presented a three-part BBC TV series, Britain in Focus: A Photographic History.

The second life of McCabe began when he became picture editor at the Guardian. His enthusiasm and his talented team extended the flair of the features pages to the rest of the paper with fresh air and impact, while eyeballing the fledgling Independent newspaper’s challenging images.

When he tired of deskwork, Eamonn entered his third life at the shutter, that of a portrait photographer, a contrast to the split-second world of sport. Much of his work is in the National Portrait Gallery, and much of it appears in Artists and their Studios, a brilliant volume written by the Guardian’s former design editor Michael McNay and serialised in the paper. Now there’s a partnership – McCabe and McNay!

This McCabe portrait of 2001 was used for the cover of Matthew Pinsent’s autobiography, A Lifetime in a Race.

Eamonn McCabe, photographer, born 28 July 1948; died 2 October 2022.

The Guardian’s picture tribute to McCabe is here and its obituary of him is here. The free registration to view these can be skipped but please consider signing up, the paper explains, “this is not a paywall, nor a step to creating one. We believe that everyone should have access to fair and factual reporting”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.