THE private view at Manhattan’s Gagosian Gallery for Mother Daughter, the joint exhibition of photographs by Mary McCartney and her late mother Linda McCartney, drew a suitably starry crowd.
Woody Allen, Drew Barrymore and Yoko Ono were among the boldface names attending.
Mary McCartney is a renowned photographer in her own right. Tony Blair requested she take the first picture of his son Leo in 2000, the first child born to a serving British Prime Minister for 150 years, and earlier this year she was invited by Queen to snap her inside Buckingham Palace.
Her mother—then called Linda Eastman—was a rock photographer in the 1960s before marrying Paul McCartney. For nearly three decades the couple enjoyed one of showbiz’s strongest marriages with Linda also being a prominent animal rights activist, vegetarian culinary entrepreneur, and co-founder of Wings, her husband’s post-Beatles musical endeavor.
So, prior to Mary McCartney giving me a tour on the morning of the opening of the show, I was expecting revealing insights into her family courtesy of a few large prints of the McCartney clan at work and play.
But Mother Daughter offers more than that. From thousands of pictures taken by her and her mother, McCartney, 46, has selected 76 works and put them on show without supplying descriptions whether they are by her or her mother.
“You can kind of tell [who took a picture] by how old he is,” she says referring to her father.
There are celebs aplenty in the show: Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger twice shot by Linda McCartney (though no Beatle apart from Paul is depicted) and Rihanna, Kate Moss, Sam Taylor-Johnson and even Tracey Emin’s cat Docket by her daughter.
But the exhibit goes far beyond glossy celebrity portraiture. Mother Daughter is full of eclectic imagery, ranging from a Snow White figurine taken by Mary to a photo of Francis Bacon’s art studio wall shot by her mother to a picture of Mary and her younger sister Stella posing next to Peggy Lee’s Christmas tree in California in 1975.
Each grouping of pictures is arranged thematically with the visual point of connection adding poignancy to what could have been a random photographic family display (albeit showcasing one of Britain’s most creative living dynasties).
For instance, a picture of Mary and Stella taken by their mother in West Berlin in 1976 hangs next to a Diane Arbus-esque photo snapped by Mary at Goodwood Revival Festival last year of a pair of twins striking similarly intense poses of sibling contentment, though looking as sixties as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
My favorite is a grouping that depicts photos taken by Mary of Sir Paul with a carrot in his mouth that he is feeding to a horse (“I haven’t seen anyone doing that in a photo before”) and one of him kissing his son James next to a picture Linda took of her husband kissing Mary (“It’s so close up that you can almost hear it, a lip-smacking kiss”).
When Gagosian first approached her with the idea of a mother-daughter show, McCartney admits, “I was not sure but actually it’s quite relevant because our styles are very intertwining.”
The themes were arranged in painstaking fashion. “I got lots of pictures and put them out on the floor like little postcard-size prints and started piecing together groups,” she says. “I would see circles, bowls and cups connected.”
The visual ties mattered more than those of the family variety, she adds: “The reason to do the show wasn’t, ‘We’ll do some pictures of us together’ and it wasn’t even that my mother inspired me to be a photographer. It was more like there’s relevance between our pictures. If we were both standing here now and took pictures in the street, we’d probably go for very similar things.”
Mother Daughter has been through a few iterations. “I didn’t think originally I’d have so much family in the show,” says McCartney, who has four children and lives in London with her second husband film director Simon Aboud.
“At first it was an edit without the family in it, but I didn’t think it worked without it. Usually I don’t show a lot of family pictures and instead I’ll show people that I go and meet and not include my father so much. But this didn’t feel complete without it.”
The number of ‘at home’ shots in the exhibition reinforces the notion that Sir Paul McCartney, for all the hundred million singles and hundred million albums that we’ve bought by him, is the most ‘ordinary’ of rock stars.
Is the legend true that Paul and Linda McCartney never spent a night apart while married? “It is true apart from when he was in jail in Japan [for bringing marijuana into the country in January 1980],” responds Mary. “They went everywhere together, it was something that was important to them. In a way it’s kind of normal. The reason it’s unusual is they were in the entertainment industry.”
There are times that being a McCartney photographing another McCartney does help.
A memorable image in the exhibition depicts a lush visual taken by Mary of fashion designer Stella showing her pregnant stomach in a Long Island field in 2006.
I ask Mary if hypothetically a photographer who had never previously met her sister could have persuaded her to strike that pose? “I think she would have done it anyway but she wouldn’t have pulled up her top to show her tummy.”
Both mother and daughter were interested in capturing spontaneous moments and flashes of energy on camera. But a key difference between them was that Linda carried her camera around in a less packaged age.
“There’s a lot more pre-production with agents and PR,” says Mary. “When mum was taking pictures of the Stones for Town & Country, they didn’t have much of an entourage.”
What she would have made of the hoopla that accompanies today’s photo shoots? “I think she would have got bored of it very quickly. She was an artist and that veneer of overproducing something didn’t excite her.”
Photographing what surrounded her became part of Linda’s life (she snapped the cover of McCartney and Michael Jackson’s single The Girl is Mine). But for her daughter, it’s become her living.
“I do commissioned, commercial work which she never really got into,” Mary says. “I don’t think it really interested her probably because she didn’t have the time to really focus on it. She was very much more of a lone photographer which I get into, but I do like connecting with my team.”
Photography has clearly helped diminish Mary’s pain at her mother’s death from breast cancer in April 1998.
“I think I’m lucky because I have lots of her with me,” she says when I ask her whether the sense of loss has abated. “Photography can evoke memories and I’m lucky to have her archive which is varied and it can bring me back to connect with her.
“Often when I’m taking a picture of people, I want to take a picture of their kids and they say, ‘No, I look awful,’ I say, ‘It’s not actually for you, it’s for your child.’ They’re going to see pictures of you. It’s not about all them looking cute!’ I’m quite passionate about that—be in pictures with your kids!”
Sir Paul went on to have an ill-fated second marriage to activist and model Heather Mills. Reports constantly surfaced during their six-year marriage that his children—particularly Stella—were less than enamored with Heather.
When I ask her about whether it was a difficult time, Mary McCartney replies, “I sympathize with anyone going through a divorce. It’s very much their business and not mine. I’m there to be supportive if I’m needed, but it’s better to try and keep out of other people’s relationships.”
Since 2011 her father has been married to Nancy Shevell. “She’s really lovely, they’re very happy,” says Mary about her mother-in-law. “She hasn’t done much press because she’s not in the media. There’s no reason to do it. She’s a good family girl.”
At the age of 73, ‘Macca’ is busier than ever and recently collaborated with Rihanna and Kanye West. “He’s touring, he’s always creating something, he’s always got ideas. It keeps him youthful.”
Meantime Mary contends her mother “was ahead of her time.”
For instance Linda McCartney’s musical ability—she was often derided during her life for her singing voice—is only now being given its due.
“I think then everyone was bitching her out but now a lot of people look to her as ahead of her time and revolutionary,” Mary says of her mother who co-wrote Band on the Run and Live and Let Die. “Or with her style, people would make fun of the way she dressed and now lots of female musicians I meet are like, ‘Oh My God your mum was so cool.’
“You look at footage from the 1970s and think how groovy she looked. But at the time she was quite rebellious and didn’t really care what people thought about her. She’d cut her own hair and wouldn’t want to shave her legs. She was real.”
Mother Daughter is at Gagosian Gallery, 976 Madison Avenue, New York, until December 19.