What are the Aegean and the islands without their color, without all those hues of blue and other shades that the brilliant summer sun gives to its landscapes? The question is rhetorical, and yet it has found a response, to some extent, through the black-and-white work of Robert McCabe that is currently on display at the Citronne Gallery of Poros Island in the Saronic Gulf. The youthful photographs shot by the American artist display another, bygone era of Greece, that is nonetheless familiar and as intimate as its sea and island landscapes.
The focal point of the work are the traditional Aegean caiques (fishing boats), that managed to charm McCabe when he was still a young student at Princeton. From then on, he never stopped photographing Greece. Here, however, we are neither talking about a photographic nor a folkloric dedication to the wooden sailing vessels of yesteryear. On the contrary, nature, the caiques and ordinary people of that era combine to create images that are direct, distinguished ‒ for the most part ‒ for their poetic honesty and feeling of sincerity.
Tatiana Spinari, the director of the gallery and curator of the display, describes, with precision, the essence of the works in the catalogue: “The subjects capture the broken Greece of the 1950s, the poverty, the hardship, the effort to recover. The photographer doesn’t pass on these messages in an emotive way or using stereotypes. He seeks the spiritual essence beneath the obvious, without romanticizing the hardship.”
“The subjects have dignity, they often pose face-on in the center of the photograph, looking directly at the photographer and, by extension, the viewer. In this way, a relationship of equality is created between the subject and the photographer/viewer. The careful, selective uniqueness of the photographic optical viewpoint renders these photographs timeless, always poignant.”
The American photographer himself, present at the opening of the exhibition on Poros, appeared touched as he remembered details from the shots lining the walls of the gallery. The real interest is the way in which he saw and captured Greek reality of the time, even within a specific thematic framework. His photographs, that cover the decade running from 1954 through to 1964, show fishermen loading their nets, island merchants, mechanics, both large and small harvesters of the sea.
People of a country battling to heal its wounds of war and poverty. Beside the portraits of people are all types of caiques in danger of disappearing today, but an emblematic means of survival in previous decades. It is no coincidence that caiques feature prominently in the image that foreigners, in particular, have of Greece.
Inspecting McCabe’s photographs, hanging in the fragrant inner court of the Citronne gallery, with its large loquat tree, it occurs to me that it would be hard to find a more suitable place for them. The port of Poros and the beach directly in front are filled, even now, with dozens of vessels – less traditional, perhaps – but creating beautiful sea scapes for any contemporary artist. It is one of those instances where the link between yesteryear and today is effortlessly created, with the only vehicle being the redeeming power of art.
“The subjects capture the broken Greece of the 1950s, the poverty, the hardship, the effort to recover. The photographer doesn’t pass on these messages in an emotive way or using stereotypes. He seeks the spiritual essence beneath the obvious, without romanticizing the hardship.”