Linda McCartney RetrospectiveWalker Art Gallery
Paul McCartney often joked that he ruined the photographic career of his first wife, Linda. OK, it wasn’t his greatest joke – that disreputable honour must surely go to The Frog Chorus – but that’s mainly because it was true. Her marriage to the Beatle certainly curtailed her time as a working music photographer.
In the few years leading up to meeting her husband in 1967, she’d attracted much acclaim for her intimate, intuitive and personal images of the US rock scene. Images characterised by their candidness, off the cuff moments, icons in their glittering ascent. Dylan, Joplin, Zappa, the Stones and Aretha Franklin, to name but a few that were the subjects of her lens.
She was the first woman to photograph a cover for Rolling Stone magazine, with a portrait of Eric Clapton. Musicians fascinated her. She was house photographer for Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East venue in New York, stalking the musicians in their private moments for a shot nobody else could get, a moment nobody else had noticed, with two Nikons strapped across her shoulders like pistols. Ready.
What she might not have been ready for, certainly artistically, was the difference marrying someone at the very epicentre of the 60s cultural bubble would bring. Within a short time as their family grew, her work became more personal and she moved towards capturing the beautiful mundanity of the things she loved. Family life, nature, animals and a Beatle. She worked instinctively, revelling in passing moments and different perspectives, from a car window on the inside of the Beatle bubble, or the freedom of exposed isolation, life away from it all in the wiry mists and standing stones of their remote Scottish farm. Many of the finer moments of this LINDA McCARTNEY Retrospective come from those perspectives.
The exhibition has received minor criticism in some quarters for being a little Paul-heavy, and yes, it is. Let’s face it, even Paul McCartney can be a bit Paul-heavy at times. He was her husband, though. She loved him. She left all her belongings and archives to him, and so it’s hardly surprising that he does feature so prominently. The show is curated by the thumbs-up king together with their daughters Mary and Stella. Some of the most interesting images feature them all.
In My Love, from 1978, we see an anonymous, everyday London street scene taken from the back seat of a car, dated only by the London bus and the cars in view. As your gaze moves upwards through the pink-blue sky in front, in the rear-view mirror we see an eye. The unmistakable eye of the artist’s husband. He seems to glow from the mirror, lit by some unseen light source, a reflection perhaps of the setting sun. It is these moments, and her ability to play with the light through different perspectives that bring such a perfect stillness to so much of her work.
An image of celebrity 60s model Twiggy strikes with the same sense of stillness. She sits alone, staring at the floor, her arm draped across herself; she’s introverted and defensive. She seems posed, almost Renaissance-looking in a green top, the light falling across her head and shoulders casting a shadow across her vacant stare. While she may seem lonely and sorry, she could just be drifting, wondering. It is such a simply observed quiet moment, and the simplicity is just beautiful.
Linda McCartney enjoyed playing with colour and form, seeking new perspectives on the most mundane daily life occurrences. Her ‘sun printing’ images, or cyanotypes, are a real highlight of this collection. Using a technique developed in the 1840s in which the paper is brushed with a mineral solution, the image is then developed by natural daylight rather than in a darkroom. This is some of the most striking work in the exhibition. The process giving a textured, etched feel such as with Stella, taken in Arizona in 1994, where her daughter’s face is held in such intimate detail, the rich cyan colour enhancing the image, simultaneously stark and graceful.
The photos of rock stars mingle with images of wild Scottish horses in the snow. Jimi Hendrix yawns. Lennon looks mightily pissed off during the Abbey Road sessions. Janis Joplin celebrates another empty bottle of Southern Comfort. Allen Ginsberg hypothesises at the kitchen table. Gilbert and George pose in a Victorian backyard. A man on a Portuguese train in 1968 looks back from his seat, staring intently at the photographer. He carries a fearful look, but seems attracted to the camera, or maybe to the artist. Maybe he just knows she’s married to a Beatle. These worlds were all part of Linda McCartney’s world, and they represent the dichotomy both of her subjects and every aspect of her life.
The shame of this exhibition is, of course, that our world today allows us such limited access to culture, and while it is obviously no less a show because of smaller audiences, it’s nonetheless a pity that this wonderful exhibition won’t attract anywhere near the numbers of something like Tate’s Keith Haring show last summer. These images could’ve been bringing that magical sense of stillness to far more people.