The photography of Mary McCartney is like the woman herself: real, natural, full of life, and shot from the hip. The artist talks about her work and her style—and her mother’s legacy, from cancer centers to vegetarianism campaigns.
By Craig McLean.
Photography by Mary McCartney
In a light-filled airy room in her London studio, Mary McCartney is leafing through her past. On the table in front of us are copies of her double volume of photography books, the self-explanatory Monochrome & Colour, published in 2014.
The handsome volumes document the 47-year-old’s entire professional life behind a camera. An early image is a portrait of her younger sister, Stella. In the informal, intimate close-up, the fashion designer seems to glow. She must have been aged 22 or 23, but she looks about 12. “I know,” says McCartney with a smile. “I just love the shadows on her lashes.”
The content of the imagery roams far and wide: still lifes, reportage, celebrities, family members. There’s actor Gwyneth Paltrow (“So spontaneous and she’s happy and having fun—a nice caught moment”) and musician Beth Ditto (“I love her. She’s punky. She properly is”). There are desolate cityscapes and gorgeous horses (“that’s one I ride in Nashville”). A blurry party shot seems to wobble from the page. It’s an informal shot, taken in the garden of her father Paul McCartney’s London home on the eve of his 2011 wedding. “I don’t think it would be as interesting if it were clear,” says McCartney. “You don’t quite know who they are. You can sort of see there’s a cake and some fairy lights. It’s a nice emotion. If it was too detailed, you would just flick past it really quickly, but this way it leaves a bit to your imagination.” she explains. “I kinda like things which allow you to come up with your own memories as well. That’s the kind of pictures I find inspiring.” If there is any defining aesthetic to the images gathered across the two volumes, culled from her archived contact sheets #1 through #5,000, it’s this.
“They had to have a narrative,” says this elegant, health-radiating, thoroughly engaging mother of four sons. “Something that I want to look at and something that has a little rawness to it. If it was too produced or easy to look at, I didn’t want to put it in. I like things that make you feel a bit of life.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in the pictures of her mother. In a snap of two Polaroids (on previous page), Linda McCartney gives the camera serious eye-contact. In one she appears disapproving; in the other, her apparent sternness is undercut by the flower stuck in her mouth.
“I love them, because it’s just very her,” she says, clarifying the meaning behind Linda’s look. Her mother’s demeanour, she avers, could easily be accessorised with her flipping the bird. “She had a little punky-ness to her… She could be sticking up her fingers [out of shot]. And I like the one with the flower—she’s just a little bit eccentric.”
Linda died of breast cancer in Arizona in 1998. She was 56. Her name lives on, not least in the range of vegetarian foods that bears her imprimatur, but also in the Linda McCartney Centre, a cancer clinic. It’s housed at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, established by her family in the city that birthed the Beatles. As an acclaimed photographer herself, the American- born artist/activist’s ethos and spirit also live on in her daughter’s work.
Ask her to describe any commonality between her work and her mother’s, and McCartney replies: “We both are very interested in trying to find moments. We’d often be looking for pictures.” This from the woman who carries on an ad hoc tradition in her iPhone-shot #someone series of street-snaps of anonymous members of the public.
“And Mum liked to use available light as much as possible, and I like to do that too. So she would push film rather than light it. And I think she liked quite raw, real things and moments,” says McCartney. “She was inspired by Dorothea Lange and gritty photographers from the ’40s. If we both went outside to look for subjects, we’d probably come back with similar things and similar characters.”
We talk about the McCartney family’s enthusiastic approach to work, and to creativity, in whatever its form. “It’s community. But it’s also people that are passionate about what they’re doing. With Mum as a photographer, she fell into it by accident. When her mum died, she moved to Arizona and went to college there, then she got married and had my sister,” she says, referring to Heather, Linda’s daughter from her first marriage to an American geologist.
“Then a friend said, ‘I’m going to an evening course [in photography]….’ At that point, Mum hadn’t really found what she wanted to do, which was like me—I was in my early 20s before I started in photography, so weirdly we have a very similar story there. And even though I grew up with her as a photographer, it didn’t click with me to become one till much later.”
Did she resist photography because that was her mother’s job? Was there extra pressure on any kid with the second name McCartney to forge their own path?
“No. I didn’t feel comfortable at school; I was quite a late blossomer. Stella was always sketching designs in bed, obsessed with fashion, but I was like, ‘I don’t really know what to do,’” McCartney says. “And I think it was partly because everyone in my family could take pictures, so I just presumed everyone could do that. And I grew up watching Mum taking them, and it seemed quite natural to her.”
After leaving school, McCartney found a job in picture research. Her thinking, she recalls, was to move from that into working in art galleries, become an expert on photography, then become a dealer in photographs.
“But then Mum asked me to go into her archive and look at all her contact sheets and help edit them. And having grown up with her work, looking through all the contact sheets [I found them to be] really varied and interesting, and quite inspiring. So that inspired me to pick up a camera and just use it, really, as a diary. I don’t write diaries—I’ll start one, and after a week it’s finished!” she says, laughing.
“Then I was looking through my friend’s holiday snaps, and they were so awful! I was like, ‘Oh, my God, not everyone can take pictures….’”
Emboldened, McCartney took a short photography course in London. She needed to know how to use a camera “and to get my head around shutter-speed and apertures, because I couldn’t figure out what that meant. And then…,” she says with a shrug, “I carried on.”
So, yes, photography was in her genes to some extent, but it’s not part of the family business to the extent that is widely believed. It’s long been reported that her mother was a scion of the Eastman Kodak photography dynasty. But while her mother’s maiden name was indeed Eastman, it’s not that Eastman.
“There’s no connection, because they were Epsteins originally—they changed their name when they came from Russia,” McCartney reveals. “My [maternal] grandfather was a very highly respected art lawyer. He looked after [Willem] de Kooning and lots of people like that. And he was passionate about art, so he collected Picasso and Matisse, and a lot of writers and music publishing. So he was in the arts, but he was a lawyer.
“But nothing to do with the Eastman family.” She smiles again. Still, ever since Linda and Paul married in 1969, the supposition has reverberated down the decades, “to the point that when I asked Mum about that when I was older, she said it was a nightmare. Once that was reported, that was it as far as the public and newspapers were concerned: She was an heiress.
“She said that years later, she was at a party and this guy came up to her and said, ‘Are you part of the Eastman family?’ And Mum replied, ‘No, everyone says that, but I’m nothing to do with it.’ And he said, ‘I’m really glad you said that, because I am part of the Eastman Kodak family, and we thought you were trading on our name all these years.’ So she was quite happy to set the record straight. But to this day, I still get asked that quite a lot!”
How does she think attitudes toward breast cancer have changed in the nearly two decades since her mother died?
Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’
“I think there’s a lot more support groups. When I went to the Linda McCartney Centre in Liverpool and walked around, I really felt this warm, pastoral, sympathetic view. There was a more community feel,” she says. “And it’s not as un-talked about; the British emotions are not so hidden anymore, which is good. And there’s a camaraderie about it, which is nice.”
That overt, can-do purposefulness is also there in McCartney’s work, in all its guises. In 2015 her exhibition Mother Daughter ran at New York’s Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, and she has a show due later this year at Toronto’s Izzy Gallery. For 2018, a new book with Rizzoli is scheduled: Alejandro is “an intimate portrait of rider and horse.”
Her most recent book was Twelfth Night 15.12.13, an up-close backstage portrait of the company, led by Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance, at New York’s Belasco Theatre as they prepared to perform Shakespeare’s play. It’s a photographic work in the tradition of previous McCartney project Off Pointe, which documented the behind-the-scenes lives of the U.K.’s Royal Ballet and Royal Opera House.
She’s tireless in her activism, too. McCartney is a champion of Maggie’s, the nationwide U.K. centers that offer support and advice for people with cancer and their families. Another cause dear to her heart is Meat Free Mondays, a (better) way of life she’s encouraged in her vegetarian cookery books Food and At My Table, and with her Instagram account, @pforpeckish.
She’s a busy commercial photographer, too, in demand from a range of international publications and fashion labels. And she’s an artist, working on her own, personal, ongoing, real-life projects—#someone, which you can find on Instagram, will eventually become a book and exhibition. Meanwhile, #somehow, McCartney has found time to develop a range of products, including dinnerware and scarves. Watch this space—or, indeed, her website—for more details.
As to how that dynamism and energy work in practice: a final word from one of her most recent collaborators, that Academy Award– winning knight of the realm. “I enjoy the anachronistic marriage of old and new that Mary has photographed,” says Sir Mark of Twelfth Night 15.12.13 (a copy of which, signed by actor and photographer, was generously donated to Mission magazine’s January 2017 fund-raiser), “the beauty of our Shakespearean clothes next to our modern clothes. But most of all,” he continues, “I treasure the photographs of actors waiting to cross that invisible line between backstage and onstage. I don’t know of a photographer being present at these moments before. To be able to spontaneously photograph this world without any preparation is credit to Mary’s skill.”