AN EYE FOR THE REAL. The London based photographer, filmmaker and author Mary McCartney’s photographs have been shown at leading international institutions and galleries. Mary’s editorial work has featured in GQ, Vogue, and the Sunday Times, and she has been a guest editor of National Geographic Magazine. Mary was selected to take the official photograph of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2015 when she became the longest-reigning British monarch in history.
This interview is also available as a podcast.
Mary McCartney, how come you became a photographer? Did your mother Linda introduce it to you?
I grew up in a very artistic visual family and my mother was a photographer. Her father Lee Eastman was a lawyer who represented abstract expressionists in New York. He was de Kooning‘s lawyer and in that world, so she grew up with art around her and then that came into our home. My dad Paul obviously is artistic. All of those elements, and seeing exhibitions or having nice art books, were how I grew up, but I never thought: I’m going to become a photographer. I wasn’t quite sure where I fitted in or what I was going to do.
When did you start?
I became interested in photography in my early twenties, but the moment I fell in love with it was with my mother when I was about five or six. She took me to her darkroom in Soho and printed a little ten by eight inch image herself, and it was just me and her. She took the small piece of blank white paper and put it into the tray, and then waved it from side to side, and I saw this black and white image magically appear. As a child the impact of that magic in that moment really went into my heart.
Was your childhood spent in London?
I was born and went to school in London, but at age nine we moved to the countryside. In the summers we would go to Scotland, where my dad had bought a remote farm, a tiny farmhouse with six of us and four dogs and horses and chickens and geese; and acres of land.
Even if you had an American mother, were you raised in England?
England and Scotland, with New Year’s Eves in Liverpool. The contrast between living in a busy city and going to Scotland, which was completely remote, was an influence on me creatively. With this remoteness everything’s intensified a bit, and it has affected how I like to work. When I collaborate with someone, I want a short cut to get to know them very quickly.
Did your parents give you a proper family education?
They wanted us to be brought up in the most normal way possible, so we went to local schools and had a routine. In-between we would travel a lot. We’d always be together. When we were young I would tour around with them. Then, when I got to the age for school, we stopped in one place. They kept it as normal as possible in a not very normal situation.
You have four children yourself. How do you raise them?
I try to do my best. I send them to schools that I think will challenge them and where they will learn, but also local so that they feel that their London is the area they live in, rather than having to travel miles away. I try and keep an eye out for them and check in with them.
How is it to be a photographer in a world where now everyone is a photographer and takes pictures all the time on their telephones?
I love the fact that it has democratized photography, which obviously when it was invented was technically quite difficult. I love that anyone can see something and photograph it, and then use that and look and reflect upon it, but it’s very different from what I do. Often people just take lots of pictures of everything, whereas what I’m really interested in is looking at the everyday, or people, and not dramatizing it and producing it into something it isn’t.
“I like to observe what is real in front of me and then figure a way of catching it as a real moment.”
Behind the Red © Mary McCartney
Mary McCartney, you are not an Instagram person?
If I am walking and see somebody really interesting I’ll take a picture of them on my phone and that will go onto my Instagram. I used to love Instagram more than I do now.
I find it harder to find things I really want to look at on it. You end up following too many people, and a lot of things seem quite similar. I use it more for communication than inspiration.
Do you do a lot of black and white photography?
I originally focused most on black and white, because the photography that first really excited and engaged me were those black and white early photographers.
What was the “Mother Daughter” exhibition about?
It was originally at Gagosian in New York. Larry Gagosian had seen my “Monochrome & Colour” book, a collection from photographs I’ve taken from the first day I started to up to date, and then he’d seen my mother’s book “Life in Photographs” which is a collection from her whole archive. He had the idea do an exhibition of my photography and my mother’s photography in one exhibition, and I was asked to curate that exhibition. I worked on it with my father, because he holds my mother’s archive. “Mother Daughter” is about how we had a very similar approach and a similar eye.
Did your mother and father have a very loving relationship?
They would sit in the evenings and talk creatively to each other. He knew a lot about her photography and her work, and they came together through her photography in a way, because her photography is what brought her to London, which is where they met.
Does he also care about your photography?
He has a really good eye and he has a good opinion, so I’ll often check in with him and talk to him creatively.
Is there a fil rouge between your work and your mother’s work?
Yes. And the hang for “Mother Daughter” was for example two pictures, one of hers with an easel with green apples on it, which then would bring to mind one of mine, a crate of washed up oranges on a beach. So those two, the oranges and the apples, went together. Or a portrait that she took of Jimi Hendrix which had a similar composition to one that I took of my brother. It was a conversation of images, between mine and hers. As you walked around the room, the viewer would see the similarity in our look.
Were your parents also very important for you in your career?
Wasn’t it difficult to make yourself known, having such famous parents?
It’s something I’ve gotten much more used to now. Originally I wanted to keep everything separate and wouldn’t show the public many family pictures, although I have a lot that I’ve taken. Now I see it much more intertwined within my career and my personal life, that it can be part of my work. I’ve grown, and my opinion has changed on that. As long as it’s a photograph that was taken to be exhibited and has my approach in it, anything I take is open for show.
“I was invited into Downing Street to take the first pictures when the Blairs’ youngest son Leo was born.”
Mary McCartney, how come you did a project on ballet?
Looking back and putting together my family upbringing, I’m very interested in what goes on behind the scenes or with somebody’s life to get to a certain production. The Royal Ballet is the top of its game. To become a Royal Ballet dancer you have to go through so much and give up quite a lot, or leave home to go to the White Lodge Royal Ballet school. It’s a big process, and I find it interesting because of seeing my parents on stage. Often you see a performance and you just go: That’s amazing! You don’t think how much had to go into that. If it’s done beautifully, it looks effortless but it’s perfection. But my mind goes to: How much work had to go in? Who are the people behind it? How did they get there?
I approached the Royal Ballet and said: Could I photograph the dancers off the stage, out of the rehearsal rooms? Can I show the grit and the devotion that goes into that and the relationships between them? I was asking to be in their bedrooms and their bathrooms, and even take pictures of them in the bath, and the director of the Opera House said: If you pinpoint a couple of the dancers and talk to them, if they agree with the project they will want you to photograph them and will allow that access. The dancers wanted me to do it and agreed, and I got a pass to access all areas of the Royal Opera House at any time.
Your younger sister Stella became a fashion designer. Do you work on fashion?
I’m not a fashion photographer. I am more people, portraits, studies, wandering around life. But I dip into fashion and I love doing fashion when I do because you can get to tell a story and a narrative. I love working with the team, hair, makeup, stylists, assistants; that can be a really great process. I’ve done a few campaigns with Stella for her collections.
Do you and Stella work well together?
We work really well together. We’re very close. We are two years apart in age, and as kids we were each other’s entertainment because we would travel a lot. In Scotland we would go out for the day and be each other’s company. I enjoy it that we challenge each other to do better in a good way, and there is an honesty between us that usually helps the project.
You made a documentary called Wingspan. What is it?
I did it with my ex-husband. Before my mum passed away, my mum and dad asked us to do a documentary on Wings and that part of their lives. I worked on that with Dad and interviewed him, but unfortunately Mum passed away before we really got started, so she wasn’t part of that process.
Was your mother’s passing at age 56 a big drama in your life?
It was a big drama. It was a big trauma for all of us because she was at the heart of the family.
Your mother was American. What is your relationship with America?
I’ve always thought of myself as half English, half American. We’d spend a lot of time travelling to New York to see my grandfather while he was still alive, and in the summers we’d go to Long Island to see cousins and uncles and aunts. I like those great family gatherings, there’d be 20 or 25 of us.
Do you have some attachment to your Jewish background?
My mum wasn’t religious, so I don’t know very much about the Jewish faith, but I like the values of it. I’m drawn to it, but we were not brought up religious at all, although believing in spirituality.
I knew Fiona Millar, who was Cherie Blair’s personal assistant and envoy, and she invited me into Downing Street to take the first pictures when the Blairs’ youngest son Leo was born. It was very personal. It was the first serving Prime Minister’s family to have a child for 150 years. I was taken in secretly through the back entrance to take the pictures for them to release to the public, because they didn’t want paparazzi following them and being hounded. All of the proceeds of that did go to charity.
Washed Up, Scotland, 2000 © Mary McCartney
Tracey’s Bed, London, 2000 © Mary McCartney
Tracey as Frida, London, 2004 © Mary McCartney
From the Paris Nude series, Paris, 2016 © Mary McCartney
Kate in Doorway © Mary McCartney
Misty Forest, Poland, 2006 © Mary McCartney
“Photography for me is memories and capturing memories.”
I work on Meat Free Mondays because we’ve grown up as a vegetarian family. All of us are vegetarian, our kids are vegetarian. My sister is, her kids, my brother, and my dad. We believe in it.
You never ate meat or fish?
I’ve tried it, but never a lot. When I was a child in Scotland my mum and dad were put off eating lamb when they looked out the window at the cute lambs jumping around and then they looked at the plate and were eating one. I love cooking vegetarian food, and I like to show people easy, non-fussy ways of doing it. My latest creative project, merging my art world and my food world, is called “Feeding Creativity”. I make a meal and take it to an artist’s studio and we’ll eat together, and I’ll photograph them with the food and write down the recipe and some of their anecdotes. I’m hoping to make that into a book and an exhibition, maybe in 2021 that’ll be finished.
Which artists have you approached?
What did you do?
I asked them: Do you mind, would you like me to bring you something to eat? I took George Condo pretzel chocolate peanut butter cookies. He loves pretzels, and showed me on his phone a picture of a giant pretzel that he had just actually texted to a friend of his. So that was a good icebreaker, and then I went into his painting studio and he painted while he ate the cookies, and we chatted and I took pictures.
Which camera do you use to take pictures?
For that I was using a digital Leica. Often I use a film camera. My book “Paris Nude” and also the David Hockney pictures I took on a film Leica.
What food did you bring to David Hockney?
It was in California and I had a hangover, so I really wasn’t in the mood to cook that day. For lunch I made him a short crust pastry and I caramelized red onions and wilted spinach and took lovely extra virgin olive oil and put that across the pastry and melted some smoked Gruyere cheese on it and took that to him.
Did he like it?
Yes, it was good. He ate it and we chatted, and he showed me what he was doing, and we talked a lot about his mother. When he was growing up in the Second World War she would get vegetarian ration cards to get more eggs and cheese for them at home. I thought that was quite clever.
What about Ed Ruscha?
I didn’t cook for him yet, but I will. It’ll be a lemon orange polenta cake. His studio has a citrus orchard in the back.
Who else will you do?
I want to do some more British based artists as well, so I’ll do the Chapman Brothers. I’d love to do Cornelia Parker. I did Rose Wylie. I’d love to do Tracey Emin. I’ve collaborated with Tracey a few times. We became friends after I had this idea of her art connected to Frida Kahlo, the Mexican self-portrait painter. I had an image of me taking a picture of Tracey in bed as herself and then me doing another picture of her dressed as Frida Kahlo. I emailed her with the idea and she replied back really positively and agreed to do it. She was living in her studio then, so it was perfect, her bed was in the studio. Then we went to a nearby daylight studio and I dressed her up in costume as Frida. We’ve worked on various projects together since then.
Do you take many photographs of beds?
I love beds. I love bedrooms. I love unmade beds.
You have guest edited the UK version of National Geographic?
In October 2018. I went to remote areas of Snowdonia in Wales, to photograph wild horses in wild country. I have a connection, because learning to ride in my youth in Scotland was very wild; going out on a pony, being kicked off and then having to walk home. I will do more work with the relationship between humans and horses and physicality.
Do you work with musicians?
Yes, and when Joni Mitchell was in London recording I was invited in to observe her for a couple of days in the studio.
When you were a child were The Beatles still together?
They were just breaking up. I was born in 1969.
Do you have memories of John Lennon?
I do, but not during the Beatles time, more in New York, going to visit. I was too young to take pictures, it’s just more memories. But photography for me is memories and capturing memories.
Do you take photographs of your children?
Yes, I do. I take photographs of everything that captures my eye.
Do your children take pictures?
My whole family is artistic and has a creative eye, but none of them has a career yet. I have to be very careful with them about social media because I don’t think any kids should Instagram the location they’re in or pictures of their school uniform. There should be privacy; and certain people aren’t necessarily having as great a time as they’re making out.
Do you always carry a camera with you?
My iPhone obviously, and I usually have a little Ricoh or Leica, a small compact camera that can fit into my handbag. When I did Kate Moss for the Stella campaign, that was on my mum’s eight by ten Polaroid film camera. Kate is a very good subject to photograph because she’s got so many sides to her character and she knows how to be in front of the camera. She’s very collaborative and beautiful.
Who are the photographers besides your mother who have influenced you?
I love Diane Arbus. I like that sense of wandering, finding characters and being invited into their world and showing the real side of them, not highly produced images. I love Garry Winogrand and his book “Women Are Beautiful”. Then there’s a color book called “Ray’s a Laugh” by Richard Billingham, which is him in his home photographing his parents. It’s all very dysfunctional and crazy and amazing and loving and wild. I’m interested in narrative in photography; to catch an image that you would hang on your wall or see in an exhibition that would arrest you, stop you, make you look, spark your imagination, bring a memory from your past into your mind, intrigue you.
London, 15th January 2020
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