Eamonn McCabe: An Accomplished Sports Photojournalist | Photography

Words can give newspapers their voice, but images provide their soul. Eamonn McCabe, who died suddenly last Sunday at the age of 74, played a crucial role in creating this authentic emotional spirit in the Observer and the Guardian for over 40 years. He was that rare thing: an instinctive news photographer whose work in daily and weekly deadlines was timeless enough to hang on gallery walls.

Most of us never master a single creative discipline. Eamonn has made himself an outstanding practitioner in threes: sports photographer, editor, portraitist. Born in London, he first felt his calling during California’s Summer of Love, when he picked up a camera during a film class in San Francisco. He then made a name for himself on the back pages of that newspaper during a golden decade that began with a contract in 1976 that earned him four Sports Photographer of the Year awards.

Great photographers are invariably fiercely independent minds, necessarily sharp in their pursuit of angle, light and split second. McCabe was rare in harnessing those instincts to become the most generous and demanding of team players when, in 1987, at the age of 40, he took on the challenge of transforming the visual language of Guardianalways insisting that photographs should do more than illustrate, they should be the spirit and heart of the stories themselves.

After editing for 13 years, he then reinvented himself once again as one of the great magazine photographers – 29 of his images are included in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

The Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Observer

He liked, with typical self-mockery, to characterize his role in the years when he worked for the Observeras “Hugh McIlvanney’s pilot” (the late great Scottish sportswriter returned the compliment in the article reproduced to the right). Together, they helped establish a kind of Sunday sports journalism full of lyrical emotion and muddy pathos. Eamonn’s photos were all stories in their own right. His study of Björn Borg’s backhand gave an unparalleled test of the sport’s new imperative: concentration; the sinking of the Boat Race crew was one of those moments of heroic comedy always like England; Kevin Keegan’s muscular celebration looked like it was choreographed just for Eamonn’s camera. Every picture speaks of the last few years when sport was still all about Saturday night and Sunday morning and McCabe and his great friend and rival on the Sunday timeChris Smith got away with it as, his colleagues remembered, the “Ali and the foreman” of photojournalism.

Roger Alton, former Observer editor and longtime friend, remembers McCabe as “the greatest of guys and a shocking loss”. It represented, Alton suggests, to begin with, all that is best in a pre-digital world: “In these days when literally tens of thousands of photos are hitting the screens of newspaper photo editors every day, Eamonn was from the days when he would call you from anywhere to tell you that he had just taken the picture of the first page or the last page. There wasn’t a choice of 27,000, just Eamonn’s – and he would hold the half-developed print out the car window to dry it in time.

Boxer Sylvester Mittee claps his hands before a training session at Frank Warren's gymnasium in King's Cross, London, in 1984.
Boxer Sylvester Mittee claps his hands before a training session at Frank Warren’s gymnasium in King’s Cross, London, in 1984. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Observer

McCabe’s eye for sporting joy became something far more complicated in 1985 when he was on assignment as match photographer at the European Cup final in Heysel, and witnessed up close of the tragedy that left 39 people crushed to death. He won the News Photographer of the Year award for this work, but it’s also part of the reason he quit matchdays to become an editor. A natural pedagogue and generous mentor, he sought out young talents in his image: those who have the visual intelligence and the technicality to discover human moments. Murdo MacLeod was one. “I was based in Scotland,” MacLeod says, “about as far away from Guardians HQ as you can get. But even on the phone, you could hear the pirate glint in Eamonn’s eyes as we hatched a plan for a photo. He had a rare gift for talking about photography and he always saw positive possibilities – a rare quality in a publisher. Plus, he was always great fun.

These qualities also made Eamonn a favorite contributor to the newspapers’ best writers. Richard Williams worked with him for many years. He suggests that the photographs of Heysel revealed all its qualities. “Eamonn was not a war photographer. He was not Don McCullin. He could have turned away. But he didn’t flinch, and suddenly he gave us something that expressed, as no words could, all the horror of that evening.

“The second, less important thing is the pleasure he always took in photographing musicians [see his portrait of Tom Waits above] and talk about music. I discovered this when we went to France together to see Marcus Miller, who had played bass with Miles Davis. Eamonn was a fan – but as with sports heroes, he never let his enthusiasm get in the way of the need to get the best shot. In terms of visual journalism, he was pretty much the ideal combination of journalist and artist.

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