Saturday, July 20, 2019

Guest Blogger: Robert A. McCabe, Mykonos Captured in Time by a Photgrapher Extraordinaire


What an honor I have in introducing legendary photographer Robert McCabe. Bob’s photographs of Mykonos from the mid-1950s are iconic treasures, and his critically acclaimed, recently released, MYKONOS, Portrait of a Vanished Era, is a breathtaking tribute fully in keeping with its title. But Bob’s skills are not confined to photography, he is an astute observer, greatly gifted in articulating what he sees in word as well as image. I’ve long admired Bob’s work and am thrilled that he agreed to post here on Murder is Everywhere. Bob’s website is, but for those interested in Bob’s background, his bio is it at the end of this post.  What he’s written I consider so compelling that I want to get right into it.

You’re in for a treat.  I promise.

Photo by Vasiliki Eleftheriou

I am grateful to Jeff Siger for the honor and privilege of writing a few words and showing a few photos of his amazing little Aegean island—as it was before the entire world descended upon it.  

My first visit to Mykonos was in the summer of 1955.  From the vantage point of those days on that magical quiet island with one 12-passenger bus and a plethora of donkeys it was absolutely inconceivable what would happen over the ensuing 60 years.  On the day I arrived there were some 15 visitors on the island. These days on a typical summer day the island expects between 120,000 and 140,000 visitors. 

From Kamnaki toward Sain Anna's beach

So in 1955 here was a small exceptionally beautiful island with little electricity, no cars, motorbikes, running water, tractors, TV or internet, no airport, no dock, and essentially no tourists. But artists and writers had already identified Mykonos as a special place some decades before my first visit, for many reasons. One was the beauty of the architecture of Chora and its extraordinary setting directly on the sea. Most Choras—island main villages—are built in the hills hidden from view from the sea to avoid so pirates wouldn’t get interested. But the Mykonians—either audaciously unafraid of pirates or because they were among the pirates—built directly on the sea, some houses so close that a captain could disembark directly into his living room. There were other unique attractions too: the warmth and hospitality of its people, the beaches with unusually fine Aegean sand, the proximity to Delos and its important archaeological site, the unspoiled landscape with its spectacular rock formations, and generations of hard-won terracing created to expand and maintain agriculture.

Little Venice

Mykonos was like an independent island principality with its own culture, its own dances, songs, poetry, cuisine, textiles, architecture, and even language. All of this had evolved and been carefully honed over a period of thousands of years, through wars, occupations, drought, and other calamities. You cannot underestimate the isolation of these Aegean islands in the age of sail and how unique and distinctive cultures evolved there.

The Garbage Collector

It is not an exaggeration to say that life in Mykonos has changed more in these past 60 years than it did in the prior 3000 years. It was an undisturbed example of a very carefully polished, self-sufficient Aegean civilization. How incredibly lucky I was to see it in those days when it was still just on the threshold of such dramatic change.

A few hours after I arrived I wrote a letter to my parents in New York and dispatched it at the post office. I told them I had found the most beautiful place on earth and even if they came directly from the United States and saw nothing else, it would be worthwhile to come and see just Mykonos. I know this must sound made up today but it is true. If you don’t believe me I will try to find the letter.

Chora from the chapel of Saint Vassilis

This year Mykonos is expecting two million visitors.  One senses there’s been a huge explosion—an explosion of houses, cars, tour buses, motorbikes, villas, roads, and people from all over the universe. That incredible magnificent little village by the sea has become a huge shopping center with virtually every retailer you can name present. But where is the bakery, where are the blacksmiths, where are the caiques and the donkeys?  Outside of Chora the landscape is dense with villas. This is progress of its own sort, and the economist in us applauds the enormous economic success of the island, the envy of its Aegean neighbors.

The Pantopoleion
History is repeating itself. Delos had been a great and renowned international commercial center in antiquity. Mykonos has today taken up the mantle of its tiny ancient neighbor. The island has reinvented itself as a happy, fashionable place for people to shop, vacation, party, dine, relax by the sea (in 100 lounge beds with an umbrella).  They shop surrounded by some of the most beautiful architecture in the world. Yet we know in our hearts that something has been lost. 

In the period after the war people started to move out of the Aegean islands, seeking work on the mainland or abroad.  Houses were sometimes abandoned when families emigrated.  Development and tourism have saved some island villages, and they have given employment to the local population and kept them in place. That has been good. Mykonos has been saved beyond imagination...and also beyond recognition. 

Narrow Alleys and Streets

In 1955 Chora had evolved for the pleasure, economic viability, convenience and edification of its inhabitants, not to lure tourists. The streets were narrow and complex for protection. The churches were the objects of faith, of hope, of salvation at sea. It was an authentic and admirable civilization, perfect in its way to serve its residents.

Church of Vangelistraki

In the 1950s you took only real ships to Mykonos, often very old ships. The sea-going high-speed buses of today did not exist. You could smell the sea and feel it. You transitioned to shore by leaping into a bobbing tender and gripping a gunwale for dear life as the meltemi’s wild sea spray hit your face. Who could have guessed that docks would replace tenders and then ferry ports would replace docks; airports would be built and a huge cruise ship harbor would be constructed. The island would become a super prime tourist destination for the world.

The Hand-Off in Rough Seas

Deck Class Aboard the Despina

Bringing in the Nets

When I look at my photographs today I feel like an archaeologist might feel when uncovering some carefully wrought object from the past that illuminates the history, mores, life and ethos of a long ago era. The photos feel to me like precious relics. They were the years just before tourism changed the face of the island forever.

Twin Churhes

We know that inspiration is an important ingredient of photography. In this case there was double inspiration: a saint’s name day festival and a baptism wrapped into one. There was an added ingredient as well, a liquid ingredient. The priest and host for the occasion was Vassilis Athimaritis, an exceptionally kind and hospitable man, and he was determined to make me feel at home. (I was the only foreigner present, although mysteriously the monastery was flying an American flag when I arrived.) Father Vassilis was continuously handing me full glasses of wine!  Luck was also a factor that day. I often think that if I had had 8 models for a day and took 1000 exposures, I would not have captured the dancers. It was the only shot of dancing from the roll. It is one of my favorite photographs.

Baptism Dancers

Baptism Musicians

The wonderful thing about photography is that it provides a true historic document of a scene or activity and at the same time offers the photographer an opportunity to present some interesting or artistic elements in a surprising or fresh way. I thought I would be returning for the rest of my life to photograph from new angles this undisturbed place.  I was wrong and unfortunately I didn’t bring enough film those early years to really do my job properly, given the impending change. I am especially disappointed that I did not photograph more of the architecture and landscape of the island before retail signage and villa construction changed their character.

Faces of Mykonos

It is sad that this year’s two million visitors cannot have the experience of Mykonos in 1955, the experience of an ancient authentic Aegean civilization.  Fortunately we have Chora with its architecture fundamentally intact. This is a treasure of incalculable value. If these photos can help a visitor or a grandchild of the island relive or imagine some small aspect of the island’s earlier life I will be happy.

My thanks to Sherri Gill, who adapted for this blog the introduction to my new book Mykonos: Portrait of a Vanished Era

Departure From Mykonos

Thanks, Bob. Now on to the Maesto’s bio:

Robert McCabe was born in Chicago in 1934 and grew up in Rye, New York. His father worked for a picture newspaper in New York, and as a result of his father’s gift of a Kodak Baby Brownie in 1939, Bob started taking photographs when he was five. His earliest quest was for newsworthy photographs and he gathered images of hurricanes, drownings, and auto and train accidents. His interests shifted to people, still lifes, and landscapes during three years in western Massachusetts, where little of dramatic interest occurred.

His first photographs of Europe were the result of a trip in 1954 to France, Italy, and Greece.  He returned to Greece in 1955, and in 1957 he photographed in the Cyclades for National Geographic Magazine.

His black and white photos were first exhibited in 1954 and 1955 at Firestone Library at Princeton University, and in a traveling exhibition which ensued. During this period he also appeared on television with Ambassador George Melas giving a photographic tour of Greece. In 1967 a selection of photographs was exhibited at the Olympic Gallery (now Olympic Tower) in New York City under the auspices of Spryos Skouras. The publication of his first book, Metamorphosis, was in 1979.

He has since exhibited his work in London, Paris, Brussels, in many locations in Greece including several in Athens, and also in Patmos, Santorini, Thessaloniki, Monodendri, Corfu and Poros. He has also exhibited in the United States, in New York City, Boston, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. 

His published books cover subjects and locations in Greece, France, Italy, New York City, New England, Havana, China, and Antarctica.

Currently he is working on several projects including books:  “Portraits of the Greeks 1954-2017”; “The Greeks and Their Seas”; Kassos 1965 with Marilen Kedros, and "Santorini: Portrait of a Vanished Era" with Margarita Pournara.



  1. Beautiful photos!


    It is the extrapolation of the past fifty years that frightens me.

  2. Splendid images! I wish I could go to that Mykonos!!!