Guardian and Observer photographer Eamonn McCabe dies aged 74 | News photography

Eamonn McCabe, one of the most famous and admired news photographers and editors of his generation, has died aged 74.

McCabe was a multi-award-winning sports photographer at the Observer from 1976 and later became a pioneering Guardian picture editor at a key time in its history. His third act was as a portrait photographer, with 29 examples of his work in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

McCabe’s death at his Suffolk home on Sunday was sudden and unexpected. His wife, Rebecca Smithers, a former Guardian reporter, said McCabe was a kind, modest and encouraging character.

“He was very generous with young photographers coming into the system,” she said. “He was very encouraging. He gave big talks but also spoke to tiny little camera clubs in party halls. If people wanted to hear about his work, he was happy to do so.

War photographer Don McCullin described McCabe as a charming, simple man. “He was very passionate about photography and whenever you dealt with him he was always honest and a very kind human being. Like most of us, his life was photography.

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 Guardian

McCullin said McCabe cut his teeth in what were the best of times, photographically, before the digital revolution.

“Photography kind of lost its way, the way color and digital and all of those things got trendy. A lot of people like him and I probably thought our numbers were up.

McCabe photographed McCullin for portraits twice. He said, “He was just such a nice guy, he was always so enthusiastic.”

Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, said: “Eamonn was a wonderful photographer and highly skilled image editor, who helped make The Guardian and The Observer visual powerhouses.

“He was also a lovely man – as a young Guardian writer, I was always delighted if he was assigned to the same story as me. He will be greatly missed.”

Diego Maradona is fouled during a friendly international between West Germany and Argentina in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1982.
Diego Maradona is fouled during a friendly international between West Germany and Argentina in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1982. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said McCabe was unusual in that he basically had three careers – sports photographer, picture editor and then portrait photographer.

“It’s very rare for someone who plays action sports to master the art of portrait photography. I think he’s unique in that regard. He covered three areas and excelled in all of them.

Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot, 1976.
Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot, 1976. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

McCabe was born in North London and, aside from a stint at film school in San Francisco, was a self-taught photographer. He joined the Observer in 1976 and quickly became a star, winning Sports Photographer of the Year four times.

He photographed the titanic Borg vs. McEnroe tennis matches, took a memorable shot of Brendan Foster running in the rain en route to breaking the 10,000 meter world record, and was there for the 1978 boat race during which the Cambridge ship sank.

“My first boat race, they sink, I get the blame for it…but it made a great picture,” he said in an interview.

One of his most memorable photos is of Chinese table tennis player Li Zhenshi and his incredibly high serve.

In 1985 he was named Press Photographer of the Year for his images of the Heysel Stadium disaster.

Juventus supporters at the Heysel stadium in 1985.
Juventus supporters at the Heysel Stadium in 1985. McCabe was named Press Photographer of the Year for his images of the disaster. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

After a stint as editor of Robert Maxwell’s short-lived SportsWeek, McCabe was hired as editor of the Guardian by the newspaper’s editor, Peter Preston. It was a time when the new Independent newspaper showed the power of news photography much more daringly and the Guardian, which had great photographers, fell behind, still using images in the traditional, often clichéd way.

McCabe has become an important and brilliant part of the Guardian’s “modern, topical and busy” revamp, winning the Picture Editor of the Year award six times.

His third act was as a portrait photographer, including memorable series of writers in the rooms where they wrote and artists in their studios.

Zadie Smith pictured around 2015.
Zadie Smith pictured around 2015. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Some of these are part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, wonderful images by artists like Bridget Riley, Chris Ofili, Paula Rego and Frank Auerbach.

Fiona Shields, head of photography for the Guardian, described McCabe as “the godfather of photojournalism”.

“He really set a standard and left a legacy that we all follow and are really proud to follow. He was also an incredibly kind person with an incredible good humor. He was always full of anecdotes and warmth.

Roger Tooth, who succeeded McCabe as editor of the Guardian, joked that they both agreed that taking pictures and running the picture desk was “so much better than work”.

He said: “Eamonn was a brilliant photographer and image editor with a natural talent for capturing or identifying the unusual or the unseen. With his natural warmth, he was always an encouraging presence wherever he was.

McCabe was also a frequent lecturer on photography, wrote several books and appeared on a number of television series, including Britain in Focus for BBC Four.

He is survived by Smithers and their daughter, Mabel, and son, Ben, by a previous marriage.

McCullin said McCabe was like all great photographers – he never stopped working. His wife agreed. “Just two weeks ago he was photographing Aldeburgh Rugby Club. No job was too big or too small.

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