Eamonn McCabe, one of the most celebrated and admired newspaper photographers and picture 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 trailblazing picture editor of the Guardian at a key moment 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 home in Suffolk on Sunday was sudden and unexpected. His wife, Rebecca Smithers, a former Guardian journalist, said McCabe was a kind, modest and encouraging character.
“He was very generous to younger photographers coming up through the system,” she said. “He was very encouraging. He would give big lectures but also talk to tiny little camera clubs in village halls. If people wanted to hear about his work he was happy to do that.”
The war photographer Don McCullin described McCabe as a lovely and straightforward man. “He was very passionate about photography and whenever you dealt with him he was always honest and a very nice human being. Like most of us, his life was photography.”
McCullin said McCabe cut his teeth in what were the best of times, photographically, before the digital revolution.
“Photography has lost its way a bit, the way colour and digital and all those things have come into fashion. A lot of people like me and him probably thought our number was up.”
McCabe photographed McCullin for portraits on two occasions. He said: “He was just such a nice guy, he was always so enthusiastic.”
Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, said: “Eamonn was a wonderful photographer and highly skilled picture editor, who helped make the Guardian and Observer into visual powerhouses.
“He was also a lovely man – as a young Guardian writer I was always thrilled if he was assigned to the same story as me. He will be greatly missed.”
The former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said McCabe was unusual in that he essentially had three careers – sport photographer, picture editor and then portrait photographer.
“It is very rare for somebody who does action sports to master the art of portrait photography. I think he is unique in that respect. He spanned three fields and excelled at all of them.”
McCabe was born in north London and, aside from a spell at a film school in San Francisco, was self-taught as a photographer. He joined the Observer in 1976 and soon became a star, winning sports photographer of the year four times.
He photographed the titanic Borg v McEnroe tennis matches, took a memorable picture of Brendan Foster running in the rain on his way to breaking the world 10,000 metres record, and was there for the 1978 Boat Race in which the Cambridge boat sank.
“My first Boat Race, they sink, I get the blame for it … but it made a lovely picture,” he said in one interview.
One of his most memorable pictures was of the Chinese table tennis player Li Zhenshi and his staggeringly high serve.
In 1985, he was named news photographer of the year for his images from the Heysel stadium disaster.
After a spell as picture editor of Robert Maxwell’s short-lived SportsWeek, McCabe was hired as the Guardian’s picture editor by the paper’s editor, Peter Preston. It was a time when the new Independent newspaper was much more daringly showing the power of news photography and the Guardian, which had some great photographers, was falling behind, still using pictures in a traditional, often cliched way.
McCabe became a big, brilliant part of the Guardian’s “modern, newsy, busy” redesign, winning picture editor of the year a record 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.
Some of those are in the National Portrait Gallery collection, wonderful images of artists including Bridget Riley, Chris Ofili, Paula Rego and Frank Auerbach.
Fiona Shields, the Guardian’s head of photography, 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 amazing good humour. He was always full of anecdotes and warmth.”
Roger Tooth, who succeeded McCabe as Guardian picture editor, joked that both of them agreed that taking pictures and running the picture desk was “so much better than working”.
He said: “Eamonn was a brilliant photographer and picture editor with a natural talent for capturing or identifying the unusual or unseen. With his natural warmth he was always an encouraging presence wherever he was.”
McCabe was also a frequent speaker about photography, wrote several books and was involved in a number of television series, including Britain in Focus for BBC Four.
He is survived by Smithers and their daughter, Mabel, and his son, Ben, by a previous marriage.
McCullin said McCabe was like all great photographers – he never stopped working. His wife said agreed. “Only two weeks ago he was photographing Aldeburgh rugby club. No job was too big or small.”