With images handpicked by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney, the exhibition Linda McCartney: Retrospective has been curated from the perspective of those who knew her best. Encompassing over 250 works from a photography career spanning 30 years, the exhibition has travelled from showings in Scotland and Liverpool, now landing in Australia for an exclusive run at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.
Having taken nearly four years to facilitate, an exhibition by a significant female artist is a major drawcard for the Biennale. In addition to McCartney’s famed portraits of musicians and candid images of her family life, the Ballarat iteration includes a collection of rarely-exhibited photographs from McCartney’s time in Australia while touring as a keyboard- playing member of the band Wings.
Artistic director Fiona Sweet describes the exhibition as a series of movements representing key chapters of McCartney’s life, beginning with a number of self-portraits taken at various ages. Having majored in art history at the University of Arizona, McCartney—then Linda Eastman—had already begun to establish herself as an artist several years before she met Paul. Honing her artistic skills with Hazel Larsen Archer, a photographer and art teacher who also taught painter Robert Rauschenberg, McCartney was deeply influenced by the documentary style of photographers like Walker Evans, Henri Cartier Bresson and Dorothea Lange.
Following graduation, McCartney fell into the music scene serendipitously. While working as an editorial assistant at Town and Country magazine, she seized an opportunity to document a promotional party on board a yacht on New York’s Hudson River. The party was a showcase for new UK band The Rolling Stones, and the images McCartney captured have since become iconic for their subject and sense of unguarded immediacy. At a 2011 auction of her mother’s work, Stella McCartney pointed out how these music industry photographs captured a distinct moment in time. “Photography was her way of talking to you, telling you something about that moment. She was surrounded by such talent and such great egos, it wasn’t her style to try and compete with that. The way she brought herself into the conversation was through her photography.”
Quickly ascending to success, in the mid-late 1960s McCartney spent time as a resident photographer at the Fillmore East in New York City, a live music venue once dubbed the cathedral of rock ’n’ roll. While there, McCartney photographed rising stars like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, before heading to London where she eventually met and photographed The Beatles. McCartney is described as a person who had a knack for making others feel at ease, and her photographs of the New York and London music scene shed light on moments not often seen by the public. “What makes Linda’s work really interesting is that she’s not lined up with all the other photographers taking photos and portraits at press calls,” says Sweet. “Linda often had close friendships with her subjects and was able to capture them just moments before or after a major event. Linda photographs in a very naturalistic way. They are very relaxed and casual portraits.”
McCartney was a trailblazer when it came to the visibility of female photographers in popular culture. In 1968, she became the first female photographer to have work on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with her portrait of musician Eric Clapton. “As a strong feminist Linda would have been very excited about this,” Sweet explains. “She was brought up in a family where she was encouraged to be independent, which in the 1960s was quite unusual for a woman. Rolling Stone would have been a huge boost to her career.” As her notoriety grew when she married Paul, McCartney became accustomed to capturing photographs from the window of a moving car—a method that sharpened her photographer’s eye for quickly framing a striking composition.
In addition to being fiercely independent, McCartney was a curious artist willing to experiment with different techniques of image making. Included in the retrospective is a section devoted to alternative photographic practices, tracing her keen interest in handcrafted cyanotypes and polaroids.
Following an intense period of life on the road, McCartney eventually moved with Paul and their young family to the picturesque Scotland countryside. It was there she began to explore landscape photography, documenting her experiences balancing public and private life as an artist, mother and musician. “In this part of the exhibition we see Linda starting to capture moments in landscape and time with her family,” says Sweet. “These are very beautifully composed, very considered photographs.”
For the final chapter of her creative life, McCartney turned her lens to animals, capturing them with the same relaxed intimacy as her human subjects. The early 1990s saw her images reflect the animal rights activism she was becoming increasingly involved with. As an artist, McCartney possessed a singular vision imbued with a gentle sophistication and respect for all living things. As Sweet puts it, “The mark of a good portrait photographer is the ability to make the subject feel at ease. We see that all the time with extraordinary photography, and we see it in Linda’s subjects in this exhibition.”
Please note that the Art Gallery of Ballarat will close in line with COVID-19 restrictions from 11.59pm Wednesday 15 September until 23 September. Before visiting, please check currently restrictions and visit the gallery website.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.