Linda McCartney: A Life, Love and Family in Photographs
Sunday National, July 14th 2019
Linda McCartney is a name known to most people but many will relate to her through her thirty-year relationship and marriage to Paul McCartney, not being fully aware of her undoubted talent as a photographer.
Now, and not before time, she is the object of an outstanding exhibition – the ‘Linda McCartney Retrospective’ at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and its UK premiere. It covers the arc of over thirty years of photographic work – from the mid-1960s to close to 1998 when she died of cancer aged 56. The show contains a moving range of her work including intimate portraits of 1960s rock greats to family life in Scotland and her love of animals and nature.
For many Linda McCartney, born Linda Eastman in Scarsdale, Westchester County, in New York State, is only synonymous with Paul and vegetarian sausages. Alongside that for some might be distant memories of unimpressive keyboard playing in the 1970s with Paul’s band, Wings.
Linda was then – as those in the know knew – so much more than that. In the sixties she emerged as a pioneering photographer, and then later in life, after bringing up four children with Paul – Heather, from her first marriage, and Mary, Stella and James – became a very public animal rights campaigner, author of vegetarian cookbooks, and successful business woman setting up Linda McCartney Foods.
This exhibition profiles her photography, but also provides a rich insight into Linda as a person, her life, relationship with Paul and their family and captures a number of outer and inner worlds.
The outer ones include the end of the sixties, the demise of the Beatles, her take on Scotland and British society; and in the inner world close-up shots of family life – of people relaxing, eating, having baths and just hanging out as families do. Photographer Annie Leibovitz accurately described this, saying that ‘Linda McCartney’s life became one with her photography … the lines between life and work are blurred.’
This journey began when Linda got a commission to photograph the Rolling Stones. That led to her pitching to the Beatles manager Brian Epstein to photograph the world’s most famous band in the summer of 1967. Epstein was impressed with her photos of Brian Jones of the Stones and Keith Moon of the Who, which she had left as examples of her work, and agreed. This led to Linda attending and photographing the Beatles at the launch of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and meeting Paul. The rest is history.
The first part of the Kelvingrove exhibition is devoted to Linda’s 1960s rock photos. There are iconic photos of blues legend B.B. King, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, and more. There are also photos of Linda herself by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison, as well as by Paul.
One particularly striking photo is of the four members of the Yardbirds, including one Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin) standing outside a London pub in 1968. They are in typical male rock poses: convinced of their coolness and self-importance. What makes the shot is that a middle aged woman has crossed their path and is obviously determined to ignore what she clearly regards as young whipper snappers, while they inhabit their rock ‘n’ roll bubble.
It is a defining Linda image as it contains much more than a conventional rock photo. In part this was her status as an American woman, born into privilege who turned her back on it to find her own path. She had an outsider status in the UK and did not have to play by old conventions. But nor did she have to obey the new, equally stultifying conformities of the emerging rock aristocracy.
The photographs of the Beatles capture them close up in a way few could or did, from sitting on the top of the world in 1967 to their slow descent into bickering and break-up. We see the unforced closeness of Paul and John which continued to the near-end; we see the camaraderie and genuine joyfulness of the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ era; the long drawn out sessions for ‘The White Album’ and the emergence of four very different individuals – and alongside Paul and Linda, also John and Yoko.
Linda was there at the making of history. At the time that Iain Macmillan took his defining shot of the fab four walking across the pedestrian crossing for the ‘Abbey Road’ album cover, Linda was there and took alternative shots of the band waiting for the photo op – and walking across the road. It is a slightly different take of an image and moment that defines the end of the group, and the hopes and dreams of a decade.
The most moving part of the exhibition are the photographs of the McCartneys up close and personal – at High Park Farm, near the Mull of Kintyre, and in a host of intimate settings and scenes. You see the McCartneys as a family; Paul and Linda in domestic surroundings – making a meal, or sitting about, or going for a walk, or doing farm and rural things, such as Paul standing on a fence surrounded by their children.
There are pictures of beloved domestic pets such as the old English sheepdog Martha (immortalised in ‘Martha My Dear’ on ‘The White Album’). Then there are gorgeous shots which became associated with various album covers. One is a photo of what became post-Beatle Paul – of him holding baby Mary inside his coat – which was printed on the back cover of Paul’s first ever solo album ‘McCartney’ in April 1970: the album where he announced to everyone the break-up of the band and the end of an era.
There is the striking cover of farm life portrayed on ‘Ram’ from May 1971 – the music accredited to Paul and Linda McCartney – with Paul holding a ram. This is about as far from Beatle Paul as you could have then imagined. The world didn’t like this version of Paul then and ‘Ram’ was slated by the ‘cool’ critics, who also didn’t ‘dig’ Linda.
Funnily enough those self-same critics, sometimes literally, sometimes the next generation, now love and applaud the melodic genius and exuberance of ‘Ram’ and call the homespun, anti-star ‘McCartney’ the precursor of today’s lo-fi indie. Linda’s own work, from photography to animal rights and her groundedness, eventually saw the opprobrium and sexism with which she was met upon marrying Paul, wilt. This Linda is beautifully captured in a Paul photo of Linda of her standing looking into the distance, circa 1970: an image used on the posthumous collection of her music with Paul, ‘Wild Prairie’.
Running through all this is Linda’s love of light, animals and nature. She said of the former: ‘The light in Scotland is the best light in the world for me’ and it shows; she also adored the calm and sanctuary of High Park Farm. When she and Paul met in the tumult of the sixties there was much posing, attitude and noise going on. Part of their mutual attraction and connection was escaping from that, partly in Paul’s case as an act of sheer mental and physical survival, and for both of them to find a sense of security and freedom.
The ‘Linda McCartney Retrospective’ is a stunning exhibition and experience: a literal treasure trove of treats, wonders, photos and artifacts, including some of Linda’s cameras, album covers, diaries, and even original contact sheets. It really does, like the best of photography, catch you by surprise and generate a range of emotions and thoughts in response. This is what Linda would have wanted as she put it in her own words: ‘A good photograph to me is … something that will make you react, stop and look and think really.’
Linda was a self-taught photographer who found her own style and gaze through trial and error – with very little formal training. Yet, aided by this, and what she described as her ‘innocence’ in how she approached photography, she found a unique talent. One that combined naturalness, intimacy and, which at its heart, captured people off guard being themselves, because that was the way she treated people – whether rock stars, celebrities, or people in everyday life.
The Kelvingrove exhibition brings up some big questions about life from the 1960s onwards. These include the changing nature of rock celebrity which is there for all to see in her photos. Linda captured the first generation of true rock stars in a way they never would allow today which is to our and their loss.
It also raises some of the most universal questions about what it is to be human and how we choose to live our lives, framing issues of love, family, belonging, home, Paul and Linda’s thirty year commitment, how we bring up children and the values we want to pass on to the next generation, along with our relationship with animals and how we look after the planet. Those are pretty big issues.
This then is a must see exhibition: a wonderful, affirming tribute to Linda, curated with care, attention and love by Paul, Mary and Stella, along with Glasgow Life. Everyone who has been involved in putting it together deserves praise and thanks. This is the opposite in every way from the carefully controlled PR-driven celebrity culture of today. This is real life, and I cannot imagine anyone of heart and mind who will not be moved, affected, feel moments of joy and sadness, experience the gamut of human emotions, and even as I did shed a quiet tear for a life well lived and full of love.
The Linda McCartney Retrospective is at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum until January 12th 2020.