On the Road with a Rollei in the '50s


Rollei Book - Preface - Gallery - Purchase

© Copyright 2016 Robert A McCabe

Poems in Silver Halide

The photographs in this volume were taken a half century ago in the course of trips I made during the 1950s. Some of the trips were very short, like to New England, and others very long—like my trip to the South Pole in 1959.And one was life changing, namely my first trip to Greece in 1954.

My father worked for a picture newspaper in New York City, and I grew up with a camera in my hands, always looking for newsworthy events and often hanging out in the paper’s darkroom. I found automobile accidents, train accidents, and shipwrecks, and I captured General Douglas McArthur and John Foster Dulles on film. But in 1949 I went away to school in western Massachusetts and I discovered a different world of photography—in people, in still lifes, and in landscapes.

Today the technology of capturing images is changing rapidly and the ability to manipulate images has been dramatically enhanced. Yet the significance of an image to the viewer remains pretty much as it has been since the invention of photography.

Brassai wrote in 1969, “There are many photographs which are full of life but which are confusing and difficult to remember. It is the force of an image which matters.” The force of an image can come from many different sources. It can come simply from something in the mind of the viewer. Or it can come from more “objective” elements such as the simplicity of the image, timing that captures something unusual or unique, the lighting, the tones, the relationship of forms, the juxtaposition of harmonious or conflicting elements, the originality of the concept of the image, among others.

For me, the most successful photographs represent a form of poetry, and go well beyond the depiction of a person, an object, or a place, or even a satisfying visual composition. Just as a short poem can create a vivid emotional experience, so too can an image. Such photographs can evoke in our souls much more than the direct visual content of the photograph. The organization of this catalogue is chronological. It starts with North America, moves on to Paris and Italy en route to Greece, then Greece, and finally the Antarctic, in the final weeks of the 1950s.

In June, 1954, I set out on a journey which was to have been a mini Grand Tour to France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and then back for more of Italy and France before returning to the United States and my junior year at Princeton. The trip had two origins. The first was an invitation from a college friend of my brother Charles to visit him in Greece for a few days. The second was the preposterously low fare on a student ship that my brother had negotiated for me in his capacity as editor of the ship’s newspaper.

The plan was to make our way from Le Havre, where the ship docked, to Paris and then to take the Simplon Orient Express to Venice where we would board a ship to Greece. We planned to stay in Greece for 10 days, then go on to Egypt.

That journey essentially ended in Greece. We did not go to Egypt, and as a matter of fact it was 40 years before I got to Egypt for the first time, and that was to visit St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. Most all of my subsequent journeys since 1954 have also ended in Greece, which is today as much home for me as the United States.

So I have not really followed Cavafy’s advice to “stop at Phoenician trading stations” and “visit many Egyptian cities to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.” But very early, when I was just turning 21, in 1954, on various summer mornings I had the enormous pleasure of coming into many Aegean harbors for the first time, again to quote Cavafy. And that was a highly addictive activity, and one for which I shall never seek rehabilitation.

So much of this exhibition is about getting to Greece and being in Greece in the 1950s and early 1960s. Paris and Italy were on the way to Greece, and I have tried to give you a flavor of what I saw there during those transient visits. In 1954 it was Paris and then Venice. In 1955, I signed on as a crew member on a Liberty ship that was heading for Greece via Italy, so there are some photos from the ship, the Hellenic Star, and from Italy.

The North American section of this exhibition presents a few photos taken as I emerged from a preoccupation with the world of news photography. I have omitted the early “news” photographs, which often showed the dead or badly wounded, or ships in distress.

We are all being steadily pulled into the orbit of the digital world. As digital resolution increases, one longs less for the remarkable resolution of a Zeiss lens and Plus X film or Kodachrome 25. The pure magic of digital photography is hard to resist. And I see no reason why digital images should not have the same force, and the same poetry, as those created with traditional means.


I am deeply grateful to my friends at the Rizarios Foundation and the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation for their friendship and support.


Robert A. McCabe