Mary McCartney interview
From The Telegraph
Mary McCartney interview
Paul's girl on photography, fashion and her late, great mother.
By Roya Nikkhah
Published: 11:26AM BST 19 Oct 2010
Mary McCartney literally started life in front of the camera. The firstborn child of Paul and Linda was introduced to the world when a baby Mary appeared peeking out from inside her father’s jacket on the cover of his first solo album, McCartney, in 1970.
But since then, she has, in her own words,‘used the camera to hide behind’ and, surprisingly for the daughter of a Beatle, is far more comfortable putting others in the limelight than standing in it herself. For the scion of a pop legend, her unstarry approach is arresting – no sooner am I up the stairs to her studio, than she rushes down them to make me tea.
‘I like blending into the background,’ she says on her return, holding out my mug. ‘It’s my job. Though I can be quite noisy and direct sometimes. I think the book shows my character – it has more reflective, quiet moments and then some in-your-face bits. That’s me.’
We meet in her large, airy studio in north London, where McCartney is flicking through her new book, From Where I Stand, a retrospective of her work from the past 15 years. It is exactly as she just described it – a collection of intimate personal photographs of her family and friends, together with bolder, sometimes surprising portraits of celebrities and lesser-known sitters.
There is a glaring Tracey Emin dressed as the feminist artist Frida Kahlo, complete with monobrow, the late Dennis Hopper looking suitably devilish, a soft-focus shot of the hard-woman of Hollywood, Sigourney Weaver, and the actress Tilda Swinton looking uncharacteristically un-icy.
What is striking about all the images is their naturalness. There is minimal lighting and little of the high gloss associated with leading portrait photographers like Mario Testino and Rankin. Is the natural, pared-down shot the McCartney signature?
‘I don’t know whether I do have a certain style, in the way that you can recognise a [David] Bailey picture because it’s black and white and lit in a certain way,’ she says. ‘I’d like to, but I find I can’t put my ego into it so much. Above all I want the pictures to be personal and natural. Mum’s motto was always “keep it simple”, which I stick to.’
McCartney mentions legendary photographers who have inspired her, among them Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier Bresson, but it is clear that her greatest influence is her mother, Linda, who died in 1998 from breast cancer, and to whom she refers time and again.
In a foreword for her book, Sir Paul McCartney recalls Mary’s fascination with her mother’s profession: ‘Growing up in our family, Mary was never far away from a camera and at an early age she began to show a keen interest in photography. I’m sure that watching her mum gave her many insights.’
‘I have a really early childhood memory of being in a darkroom with Mum when I was four or five,’ McCartney says. ‘She must have taken me printing with her one day, and I remember seeing that magic of when you put a blank piece of paper into a tray and an image comes out, like in the movies.
‘Mum always had a camera with her on her shoulder, so I just thought everyone took pictures. Sometimes she’d set her camera for us and we’d take the pictures.’
McCartney describes her early childhood, before the family settled in Sussex and London, as a series of ‘nomadic, happy wanderings’, all of which were documented through a lens by Linda. ‘We’ve got so many fabulous albums of the “family on tour” – the extended family of riggers, roadies and sound guys in Australia, America, recording an album on a boat in the Virgin Islands, random things like that,’ she says.
‘It was normal to us, like having a camera or seeing Mum and Dad play live – what you grow up with is normal to you. When you get a bit older and go to school, and see what other people’s families are like, then you start comparing it to your life. But Stella and I are quite close in age, and we were partners in crime, with my older sister [Heather, from Linda’s first marriage, who was adopted by Paul when they married].’
The artist Sir Peter Blake, a close family friend of the McCartneys, told me recently about a project he and McCartney worked on for the charity Sport Relief, which involved McCartney photographing the boxer Ricky Hatton for a portrait that Blake would paint from. ‘We turned up there in this gym on the Harrow Road, all big boxers, an almost hostile male environment, and Mary just got to it, so quietly, no fuss, figuring out who did what. Within minutes they were eating out of her hand. It was just like watching Linda at work.’
McCartney smiles when recalling the shoot. ‘He [Hatton] didn’t even turn up for the first day because I think Man City had lost, and at the gym they were like: “Um, he’s not very well.” Then next day it was like, will he turn up? It became like a little adventure. But I love those situations – you can’t go in and take over.’
McCartney has spoken of her regret that her mother’s work wasn’t more recognised. ‘The thing about her is that she never blew her own trumpet and hence was pigeonholed as a celebrity who dabbled in photography, which isn’t how it was at all,’ she has said. ‘The McCartney name made it possible for people to miss, or ignore, just how good she consistently was.’
I wonder if the fear of being similarly pigeonholed made McCartney reticent to embark on photography as a career in the mid-Nineties, which followed a stint working as a researcher in a music-publishing company?
‘It took me a while to get the confidence to do it as a career,’ she says. ‘Obviously my name would open a door or two, but people won’t just book you because of your name, so in a way it’s even more embarrassing, because if people meet me and then nobody wants to book me, that would be really humiliating. So I had to make sure I was OK with that before I stepped into it.’
But some of the biggest names in art and fashion have consistently booked McCartney, including John Galliano, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair, while her work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, the Natural History Museum and the Goss Michael Foundation in Dallas.
Sir Peter puts it succinctly when he says: ‘Mary was privileged to inherit the ultimate AAA [Access All Areas] pass to go backstage in the music world. But she has proceeded far beyond that now, and has quietly and gently earned the right to photograph behind the scenes in the height of the world’s fashion and art.’
It was McCartney to whom Tony and Cherie Blair turned in 2000 to take the first official portraits of their newborn son, Leo, just 36 hours after his birth. ‘That was slightly pressurised,’ she says of her trip to Downing Street. ‘I was so nervous I forgot my tripod, though I didn’t admit that to anyone. Can you imagine? On the most important job ever. Typical me being stupid.’
What were the Blairs like to work with? ‘It was really just a family who’ve had a newborn,’ she says. ‘You know, the brothers were all bickering because they wanted to get outside. It was very real. I was flattered to be asked to such an intimate setting.They were very open, but there were no political discussions. He [Blair] was more interested in knowing what I wanted him to wear.’
While McCartney frequently shoots catwalk shows and campaigns for fashion’s biggest names, Chrissie Hynde, a close friend and former sitter, describes her thus: ‘I think you could say, at the expense of possibly losing her a job or two, that Mary is the opposite of a fashion photographer.’
It is clearly meant as a compliment, but what does Hynde mean? ‘I’m just not very fashiony,’ McCartney shrugs. It’s a surprising statement from the sister of one Britain’s leading designers, but a quick glance at her simple outfit of striped cashmere sweater, grey skinny jeans and flat black pumps reveals it to be true. It’s an understated look, with just the tiniest adornment – a gold heart-shaped locket and ‘M’ pendant hanging from her neck.
‘To really be a fashion photographer, you need to live fashion more than I do,’ she adds. ‘I don’t keep up with everything. It’s not necessarily what excites me. I can find it a little intimidating. When you’re in that world, I think, my god, I’m going to be eaten alive. But I do love some of the characters though. Real Ugly Betty.’
One of the characters she most relishes working with is Kate Moss, who features throughout the book. ‘I love this one,’ she says, springing up from her chair to point at a Polaroid on the wall of Moss kneeling on a chair, back to the camera, unzipping her dress. ‘She’s got such character – so naughty and rock chick, but artistic. She knows how to perform and she’s got such stamina for it. In front of the camera she just glows.’
As a fashion and portrait photographer, where does McCartney stand on the controversial art of airbrushing and retouching? Does her less-is-more approach to work extend into perfecting her subjects?
‘In certain ways it has become too much,’ she says. ‘But if you’re selling stuff, it’s always been the way that you’re going to try and make it look as perfect as possible, that’s nothing new.
‘I don’t think it should be hidden and I’m open about it. With one of my god-daughters who’s 15, I tell her: “Don’t ever think you’re going to look like this because this isn’t necessarily real.” I just presume everyone knows it [retouching] happens, but a lot of people don’t. I think kids at school should somehow be told, so they don’t think they have to look like that perfect person. Explain to them it’s advertising. In computer studies, you could have a lesson about photography and how easy retouching is.’
McCartney, 41, lives in north London with the film-maker Simon Aboud, whom she married in June, their two-year-old son and her two sons who are 11 and eight, from her first marriage to the television producer, Alistair Donald.
‘It’s always mayhem with three boys, a dog and two hamsters. But I love the mayhem – I grew up in mayhem and I’ve kind of carried it on.’
Precious spare time is spent cooking, walking the dog to downloads of Desert Island Discs, and ‘I’m ashamed to say it, watching junk TV’.
McCartney laughs when she recalls trying to watch ‘junk TV’ as a child, only to be rudely interrupted by her father strumming on his guitar – a dream scenario for millions of Beatles fans, a plain irritant for the teenage McCartney. ‘We’ve all of us been lucky that we’ve been around parents that kind of inspire you,’ she says, referring to her siblings, all of whom have creative careers – her eldest sister, Heather, is a pottery designer and younger brother James is a musician.
‘I realise and appreciate that now. When I was a kid growing up I didn’t realise it. It was like: “Dad will you stop playing guitar? We’re trying to watch EastEnders; that’s just annoying”, whereas now, it’s like: “OK, you’re pretty good at that, I’ll deal with it”.’
When I ask her if she has a favourite picture in the book, unlike so many artists who say they couldn’t possibly choose, McCartney instantly turns to the page featuring a photograph of her parents’ bed, with its beautifully embroidered sheets, crumpled from where someone has lain and just risen. It is called Mum’s Side of the Bed and was taken at the family home in Sussex the year Linda died.
‘I’m really glad I took this picture. This is when Mum got out,’ she says, tracing the folds of the sheet on the page with her finger. ‘The idea that a loved one was sitting there – the crumpled sheets, that they sat there together. I love that. It tells a bit of a story.’
‘From Where I Stand’ is published by Thames & Hudson at £19.95. An exhibition of Mary McCartney’s photographs will be at The Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, from Oct 22 Nov 20. A display of 12 portraits from the book will be exhibited in the Bookshop Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery, London until April 10 2011. Mary McCartney will be signing books at Selfridges on October 22 from 6pm to 7pm.