Mary McCartney’s life in photographs started when she was just an infant. That baby on the cover of Paul McCartney’s first eponymous solo record, released in 1970, is her, peeking out at the camera from inside the sheepskin coat of her famous father and Beatles co-founder. The photographer was her mother, Linda Eastman McCartney, who early on nurtured Mary, the first-born child of her union with the former Beatle, to share her love and passion for photography.
Today an established artist in her own right, Mary McCartney has shot intimate portraits of some of the celebrities who have long orbited around the family of a Beatle: Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Debbie Harry, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band artist Peter Blake, Marianne Faithfull and Vanessa Redrave to name a few.
These portraits and others of contemporary celebrities such as Madonna, Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow comprise the bulk of her 2010 book, Mary McCartney: From Where I Stand, now the focus of an exhibition opening at Izzy Gallery in Toronto next week. The range of black-and-white and colour images include behind-the-scenes portraits of dancers from the Royal Ballet and of her fashion designer sister Stella McCartney’s fashion shows. Mary McCartney discloses the point of view of an insider, allowing her viewers open access to the rarefied world of fame.
But as she tells The Globe and Mail in a conversation touching on growing up on the road touring with her parents’ rock band Wings and her life as a mother of four sons, making that access look easy is all part of the art.
Let’s start by talking about creativity. Tell us about your process.
I think my process is thinking about the end images so I start with an atmosphere of a photograph that I want to get, then work back from there to attain that. I have an image in mind. For instance, when I did the ballet project, Off Pointe, with the Royal Ballet, an image came into my mind of a ballet dancer tending to her feet in her bathroom at the end of a really long evening of performance. And from there I worked back, and contacted the Royal Ballet and met the dancers. But it all came from an initial mental image.
You and I share a fascination with the backstage world of the ballet dancer. Why have you chosen to portray ballet dancers far from the footlights?
That’s a good question. I chose the ballet because I think it’s a private, very personal, almost all-consuming world. It’s quite intense. I’m not so physical. I’m more visual, and I would never be able to have the endurance and lifestyle that a ballet dancer has, so I think it’s so far from the stamina that I think I have myself. So, I find it fascinating that they can perform the way they can do, first of all. Then I met a ballet dancer years ago once. We were at a party in Soho and we were drinking together, and she was smoking, and a friend of mine was like, ‘You don’t smoke; you’re a ballet dancer,’ and from that, it kind of intrigued me more, and then meeting the dancers. They socialize together; they have relationships together and there’s like a whole other world of intensity and from that I was really quite intrigued about what goes on behind the scenes.
And so I met some of the dancers, and they kind of let me into that world. So I think partly because I found it so intriguing because it was a whole lifestyle I didn’t know about, and secondly, it was to do with sort of gaining that trust, to be allowed into that world to shadow the dancers, and from there I really wanted to do it away from the stage and the rehearsal rooms as much as possible, mainly because that part has been already been captured really well, and I was more interested in their lives and relationships and what goes on away from the rehearsal room.
You have one of the dancers poised over a pool table.
Yes. That was fun. That was when they had done a performance and we all went out to dinner and a party and from there we went back to someone’s apartment and they ended up playing pool. But I just love the fact that you can tell she’s a ballet dancer by the way she’s draping herself across the table. It’s very much about their lifestyle. There’s another one where I stayed over with them at one of their homes, and in the morning one of the ballet dancers, her name is Sian [Murphy], wanted to make a cup of tea, and she’s standing with her feet in a ballet dancer’s position, but, you know, she’s just got her underwear on, and a towel wrapped around her head because she’s just washed her hair, and you can just tell she’s a ballet dancer even when she’s making a cup of tea.
I understand you are continuing to work with dancers for a new project. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve been working on my new book project, called Devoted, and it is carrying on from the dancers in that they have such devotion to their lifestyle and the commitment, the time commitment, everything that they put into their career. It kind of takes over their lives. And then you have the sacrifice, a certain amount, to live that life because it is a real passion. So I’m continuing with the dancers, and I am taking other subjects. I photographed a geisha, which also has that ritual and that dedication to learning the process. I am doing various other subjects based around that devotion and that commitment.
This behind-the-scenes point of view permeates all your work, even of celebrities. Why do prefer this approach?
I am quite intrigued by what goes on before the performance. I’ve always been curious. Like, if I watch a play or a dance recital or anything really, even if it’s a kids’ puppet show, I get really distracted thinking: Who is this person performing on the stage? How did they get there? What was their life like? How did they end up performing in this way? Even to the point of, What’s their dressing room like? And what’s their ritual before they come up on the stage? What do they eat? What time do they sleep until they don’t feel too tired?
So you know, I get really distracted asking myself lots of questions. I really am quite fascinated by these people and their lives, these people’s personal stories, and I suppose it’s that privacy and that intimacy before the public display. So trying to get myself into these situations where I can kind of observe them in their more personal moments has always intrigued me.
But even when you are photographing people on the stage, like Bjork for instance, the approach appears shy and private. Why?
Hmmm. I think it sort of interests me more. It’s sort of looking at something from a different angle that isn’t the one that everyone sees. It’s the kind of thing, when I look at a photograph like that it makes me ask questions or want to know more about the story. Whereas if it’s more of a typical shot taken for the more normal kind of view point then maybe I’ll look over it a bit more quickly whereas I want to get something more arresting, to make people stop and make them look at it and wonder what the story is behind it, to make up their own story around it. I like images that make you question, make you wonder a little bit.
You got your first big start photographing the Blairs while Tony Blair was still in office as the British prime minister. Can you tell us about that experience?
Um, it was quite an interesting one. I started working as a photographer working in my mother’s photography archives, and helping her edit images, and through that Cherie Blair, we had donated one of mom’s photographs for a charity project they [the Blairs] were doing, and so we met though that, and then I just got a phone call one day from Fiona Miller, her adviser, saying can we meet somewhere to discus something privately, which was very intriguing. So, when we met she said, ‘Well you know, Cherie and Tony Blair would like you to take the first pictures of their baby because they are aware there will be a lot of public interest and they would like to have someone that they trust come and take the pictures in a relaxed environment and then release the pictures that way rather than have paparazzi stalking them that sort of thing.’ So they invited me in and it was very intriguing because it worked very much in my style in that I love to gain that trust of my subjects and go into quite personal situations and get portraits and photographs that way. [Those photographs] have an intensity about them. He was only about 36 hours old when I took those pictures, so there’s a tension in the air of a newborn, and just being in Downing Street, with all the press outside. It kind of had an excitement to it.
How else has your late mother, Linda McCartney, influenced you as a photographer?
I think that in her photographic style she would take pictures that looked really easy to take and really simple. She didn’t do a lot of big lights and fancy stuff around it. But she would get very intimate, relaxed photographs. She could get her subjects to really, really relax in front of her, and she used a lot of available light situations. So in a way the pictures look quite casual but they are capturing very important moments, so I think that has really influenced me, because that is something that I like to do.
We can’t leave Paul McCartney out of the equation. How has he influenced you as an artist?
He has influenced me in that he, as a child I remember he and my mom would sit together and he would edit my mom if mom was doing a book, and they would sit around with prints and he would help edit pictures of her and so he has a really good eye, and a really good opinion on things. So when I’ve done exhibitions and books, I get my edit together but then I meet up with him, you know for breakfast, and go through working prints and ask him his opinion. I think he’s got a good eye, and he’s always been interested in photography. And he’s had a lot of amazing photographers over the years take his picture, so I think he has a really good opinion. I ask his judgment still on his favourite shots, if I’ve got a shoot going on.
You grew up on the road while your parents had the rock band, Wings. Have you ever thought to rebel against all that anti-conformity that has surrounded you all your life as the daughter of a major rock star and icon?
No, I’ve never felt the need to rebel. I think that, there was a lot of time on the road growing up, and a lot of travelling, but I had my siblings with me so it felt quite normal. There was a lot of activity around, and mom and dad would, if we were somewhere for a while, rent a house rather than putting us in a hotel so it would have a kitchen and cooking and home living around it, still. Other than that, they were quite interesting, rounding experiences and also by the time I got to 8, 9, 10, they settled down, and stopped touring for a while. So it sort of was more those younger years where you’re still quite flexible. So when I got a bit older we did settle and I was at a school kind of normally and not moving around all the time. But I think, no, I haven’t rebelled against it. It’s made me enjoy travelling and seeing new things and I think maybe I’m quite adaptable to different situations because of it.
You dedicate your 2010 book to your family. How has your sister, Stella McCartney, influenced you?
She and I have worked on a few projects together. I worked on a campaign for her photography. But you know we are close and we hang out quite a lot so we bounce ideas off each other.
How about brother James?
He’s been quite a good subject. I’ve taken a lot of photographs of him over the years. I like taking pictures. I do commercial projects and I do more personal things during holiday times and so he’s quite fun, and quite quirky and I’ve done a nice range of pictures of him. He’s a great subject. He’s got a great sense of humour, and in the past he’s sort of performed well for me before the camera, so I’ve got a lot of nice photographs of him over the years but quite quirky, which I like, they make me smile.
Digital or darkroom?
A combination of the two. I do a lot of digital commercial work but my books and exhibitions and limited editions are generally on film. It depends. Depending on what the shoot is I kind of build the kit around that, so if I’m shooting and it’s just me and the camera on my own exploring then I generally use film, and if it’s more a shoot where I need a team, then I will shoot with digital because you can e-mail the edits and it’s much more practical, but my heart is still with film. That’s how I learned. A lot of the photographs that have inspired me are beautiful black and white, grainy prints, so I like that texture.
Do you like developing the pictures, then?
It’s more the film quality and the look of it and the actual shooting with film that I like. I’m not so into printing and that side of it.
But with film comes uncertainty.
Yes and you wait for the contact sheets and see what you’ve got. I like that. It’s a bit more magical to me. But you know digital, when you’ve got it set up properly, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference.
Your coming visit to Toronto: Is it your first time here?
I think it will be my first proper visit to Toronto. I’ve been before when dad played there. But I just came in for the evening and went to the show and then left so it’s my first time, yeah, it’s my second time.
What’s been your experience working with the Izzy Gallery?
They’ve been very encouraging. They’ve got a good eye and they’ve worked with my images, suggesting images that they like, so we’ve kind of worked together on the edit for this exhibition, and, um, they’ve been pretty easy and nice to work with.
How do you choose the galleries you work with?
I often work in the sense that I have a request. I was approached by the Izzy Gallery and then from there I do a bit of research on the gallery and then it works that way. They approached me and I knew some of the photographers who had worked with them before [Albert Watson and Ellen von Unwerth] and so I made the decision from there. I generally work with more specialist photographic galleries that specialize in limited editions.
This interview has been edited and condensed.