Appreciating Eamonn McCabe's work | Photography – The Guardian

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Working with Eamonn McCabe can be hazardous to a reporter’s ego. McCabe’s photographs often convey the essence of an event or a performer with such dramatic succinctness that the writer assigned to the same job is left with the feeling of having turned in a 1,500-word caption.

The first glance at the printed results of our labours frequently comes on a Saturday night in The Cockpit, the pub in which hacks and smudgers (Fleet Street’s favourite term for photographers), wearied by the ceaseless pursuit of truth and beauty at the Observer next door, gather for refreshment. Bracing yourself is easier there.

During my first days as a news reporter I had to fight against a natural feeling of resentment that photographers invariably make it to the pub before writers. It took me a year or two to acknowledge unreservedly that there is a special strain on the photographer that entitles him to the release he enjoys once his film is delivered. The strain is identified with the awareness that he has only a few seconds, perhaps only a fraction of a second, in which to get his day’s work right.

If a reporter fails to see or hear something crucial connected with his story, some retrospective checking, maybe just a telephone call, can usually make good the deficiency. But the photographer who has missed the key shot is quite likely to find the lapse irretrievable. It is one of McCabe’s major strengths that he allows himself very few lapses. With a regularity that is unnerving he comes back from the job with the best picture imaginable. And by that I mean the best picture he could have imagined, usually something far more interesting than would have occurred to the rest of us.

Sometimes he sets himself apart by making his the only lens to capture historic moments, such as the sinking of a Boat Race crew, or by a vividly original glimpse of a familiar ritual, like the picture of a table tennis player preparing to serve while the tiny white ball hovers, remote as a planet, above his head. Often he demonstrates his talents with portraits that can be read like biographies. But at least as outstanding are those photographs in which several performers are caught in intense, inter-related attitudes, perhaps half a dozen footballers or rugby players fixed in the moment when they are reacting with fierce individuality to some decisive incident. These shots have the quality of the best possible freeze-frame from some marvellously exciting movie: they are vibrant with a sense of hectic action crowding in from both sides of the moment they depict. They are, in short, compellingly alive, and to manage that effect consistently on a Sunday paper sports page is an extraordinary achievement.

Extract from Eamonn McCabe, Sports Photographer courtesy of Aurum, an imprint of the Quarto Group


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