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Robert McCabe’s Vanishing Mykonos

Photo Exhibition McCabe mykonos
The open air exhibition of Robert McCabe’s Mykonos is set in the Kastro area of the island’s main town. Image courtesy of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades

Visitors to Mykonos will have the opportunity to travel back in time for free at outdoor public spaces of the island during September and October thanks to Robert McCabe.

On display as visitors enter Chora from the old port as well as in the Kastro area surrounding the infamous church of Paraportiani is the work of American Photographer and Philhellene Robert McCabe. The exhibition is entitled “The Island that Seduced the World: Mykonos in the 1950s.”

McCabe’s photographs are set on wood displays, 90 by 70 centimeters each, al fresco, so they can be viewed by anyone strolling through the area.

Without any effort, a 2021 visitor to Mykonos can view the island as it was in 1955 and 1957, before it became a major travel destination. McCabe has captured the landscape, the architecture and the people in his images. There is also a set of images on display in the atrium of the Mykonos Archaeological Museum.

McCabe Photos at Paraportiani
Photographs on display outdoors in Mykonos from American photographer and Philhellene Robert McCabe. images courtesy of Ephorate of Antiquities Cyclades

An official launch for the exhibition had been planned for early September with the photographer scheduled to be on hand. Due to to Covid-19 safety restrictions, the launch did not  take place.  But the images will remain on display until October 31.

McCabe’s portraits of locals and images of the island from the mid-20th century have been placed around the church of Paraportiani, perhaps one of the most photographed churches in the world. The unique structure of the church, with its many curves and combined buildings, draws a stark contrast of white stucco against the ever blue Aegean sea.

Recently unveiled next to Paraportiani Church, are the remnants of the medieval settlement with finds unearthed from the Neolithic period to the Byzantine period. Excavation of the site began in 2018 under the framework of the Cultural Development Program Agreement between the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Mykonos.

McCabe Exhibition From Mykonos: Portrait of a Vanished Era

Sophia Hiniadou Cambanis, cultural policy and management advisor has curated the exhibition. The exhibition is based on the book by McCabe Mykonos: Portrait of a Vanished Era. The curator stated, “The exhibition is alive in the ruins of a living ruin. Within the Kastro, in the museum and in the old port, are the living memories of a Mykonos that we have known. We must include as a part of our present.”

Bob McCabe photographing Greece
Robert McCabe in Greece in the mid 1950s. Image courtesy of Robert McCabe

Robert McCabe photographed Mykonos over 48 hours during the summer of 1955. Those images were the early beginnings of a career in journalism. They captured a slice in time of a Greek era long gone. A sleepy island of fisherman and farmers struggling to make ends meet became a global destination for hedonistic lifestyles and obnoxious displays of material abundance by both visitors and locals alike.

McCabe Photographs Greece for National Geographic

McCabe first visited Greece in 1954 as a student at Princeton University. He returned in 1955 traveling across the Aegean and photographing with a Rolleiflex, while in 1957 he took a series of color photographs in the Cyclades for National Geographic Society. He began taking photographs which documented life in Greece, from archaeological sites and landscapes to everyday events and people, at a time when the country was still largely untouched by tourism.

“In 1955 Mykonos was like an independent island principality, with its own culture, its own dances, songs, poetry, cuisine, textiles, architecture, even language,” stated McCabe. “All of this had evolved and been carefully honed over a period of thousands of years, through wars, occupations, drought, and other calamities. This beautiful island represented in a way an undisturbed example of a very carefully polished self sufficient Aegean civilization.”

fisherman in Mykonos 1950s McCabe
McCabe captured fishermen as they unloaded their haul. Image courtesy of Robert McCabe

Since then McCabe continues to photograph the beauty and history of the country, presenting his work in numerous exhibitions and publications around the world. McCabe’s lens captures with rare sensitivity, places that have changed. McCabe’s work preserves images of Greek folk culture, offering a lesson in cultural memory.

In the introduction to his 2018 book on Mykonos McCabe stated, “When I look at my photographs today I feel like an archaeologist might feel when she or he has uncovered some carefully wrought object from the past that illuminates the history and mores and life and ethos of a long ago era. The photos feel to me like precious relics.”

McCabe stated, “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.”

McCabe Recently Issued Book on Strofades Monastery

McCabe’s most recent projects include a coffee-table book on the Strofades Monastery, which was seriously damaged in an earthquake in 2018. The remote monastery is located on an islet off the coast of the Ionian island of Zakynthos.

He has also published a book on Greece’s iconic island of Santorini before its devastating earthquake of 1956. In his work “Santorini – Portrait of a Vanished Era,” one sees the island of Santorini prior to the onslaught of mass tourism, and the Greek generosity of spirit is encapsulated in every photo. Not only does McCabe capture the island’s images, but he shares the stories of the people.

When one pictures Greece, one often thinks of the idea of philoxenia, or “love of a stranger,” thanks also to the extensive photographic works of McCabe. He has documented the astounding beauty of Greece through his camera lens since his very first visit to the island of Santorini in 1954.

McCabe Granted Honorary Citizenship 2020

McCabe was granted honorary citizenship to Greece in February 2020. The 87-year-old Chicago native, in recognition of his contribution to Greece, was  sworn in as a Greek citizen. The presentation was made by the Consul General of Greece in Boston, Strato Efthymiou, with a decree issued by the president of the Hellenic Republic.

McCabe receives Greek citizenship
Robert McCabe was awarded Greek citizenship in 2020 for his contributions to the nation. Image courtesy of Robert McCabe

This honor constitutes an act of recognition by the Greek State toward a great philhellene whose work serves as a cultural record for Greece. Through his photographs he has brilliantly captured the unique people, landscapes and landmarks of a recent past that has vanished irretrievably.

As part of the program to honor the 200 year anniversary of the Greek nation, McCabe participated in an online presentation through the Acropolis Museum in the early spring.

McCabe has also supported many Greek-American institutions over the years, including Athens College, the Gennadius Library and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

Generous benefactors of Greece, the McCabe family contributed to the transformation of the Consulate General of Greece in Boston by donating 35 rare photographs of landscapes and archaeological sites. These images make up what is now a permanent exhibition of his work at the Consulate General. An extraordinary print of the Acropolis in color stands out among the black-and-white shots. It was taken in Athens in December of 2016, with the warm last rays of a winter sun illuminating the monuments against a storm darkened sky.

The famed photographer also bought and restored the Boston home of Samuel Gridley Howe, who fought on the Greek side in 1824 during the Greek War of Independence.

The exhibition of “the island that Seduced the World” has been organized in a cooperative effort between the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades and the Municipality of Mykonos’ committee of culture and community programming under the auspices of the President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou.


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