M ary McCartney arrives at Sotheby’s weighed down with bulky camera bags and a basket of gleaming red tomatoes. She’s here to talk to us about Can we Have a Moment? her photography exhibition launching in March at Sotheby’s New Bond Street, but was just at Gilbert and George’s house in East London, making them vegan BLT sandwiches for a forthcoming book. And so happy is Mary about those vegan BLTs, she begins to rummage around her bag to see if she’s any packets of vegan bacon left. But no luck. Tomatoes, yes. But Gilbert and George have eaten all the vegan bacon.
Never mind. We have a warming fire, tea and cookies, in a quiet room deep in the heart of Sotheby’s New Bond Street buildings, where Mary settles down for a chat, affable and ready for conversation. ‘Ask anything you like,’ she chirps briskly, busying herself with a teapot. ‘And I shall tell you.’
In The Studio: Can We Have A Moment? With Mary McCartney
Where to start? The forthcoming exhibition of course, but there are so many other things I am curious to talk about. There’s her directorial feature documentary If These Walls Could Speak, presently streaming to widespread acclaim on Disney+ and offering an insider’s history of legendary London recording studios, Abbey Road. Then there’s her successful career in gastronomy and tireless advocacy of a meat-free lifestyle, with two books under her belt, FOOD (2012) and At My Table (2015) and one more, Feeding Creativity, in the works. Or there’s Meat Free Mondays (the initiative that says it all in the name) that she founded in the UK with dad Paul and sister Stella. Or there’s the Food Network’s immensely popular Mary McCartney Serves It Up TV show. Now on its third season, the cooking show has welcomed guests including Stanley Tucci, Kate Hudson, Paul McCartney, sister Stella, Dave Grohl, Liv Tyler and Oprah, amongst others, joining Mary in her kitchen to kibitz over chopping boards, bubbling pots, delicious veggie recipes and lots of conversation.
But to the matter in hand, and Can we Have a Moment?, which serves as a perfect umbrella under which to address much of the above. A retrospective spanning 30 plus years of McCartney’s photography, running between 9 March and 9 June 2023, it’s part of Sotheby’s (Women) Artists season, presenting an expansive selection of work over three decades, incorporating candid portraits, landscapes, still life, commissioned projects, and a sprinkling of spontaneous glimpses, found behind the corners of everyday life.
What gives the photographs in this show a sense of unity is McCartney’s distinct eye, empathy and quick-witted (and often witty) reaction to a situation, or person. Each of her photographs offers up a richly-layered vignette, composed with deceptive simplicity and a painterly eye for texture, light and colour.
In McCartney’s photography, friends and family intersperse with strangers and superstars (in Mary’s case, family, friends, and superstars can often be one and the same). Animals and people bond happily, a quirky sidelong glance down a city street opens a vista of stories, a stolen kiss or accidental touch between two people can speak volumes. An exhausted ballerina grabs a moment’s pause backstage, a supermodel plods through the Glastonbury mire, a mother gently holds a tiny frog up to the camera, an iconic artist poses as Frida Kahlo. Surveying the works, one is immediately struck by the intimacy and sensitivity of many of the images, captured as McCartney explains, by the fundamental rapport of trust and chemistry she works to build with her subjects.
‘Trust is a big thing in my photography. With all the people that I’ve picked for this exhibition, I would create a narrative in my own head. I can create a whole world around them. So, in this show, I’ve picked the images from my collection which I think will then evoke that feeling in the viewer.’
'With all the people that I’ve picked for this exhibition... I can create a whole world around them. I’ve picked the images from my collection which I think will then evoke that feeling in the viewer'
Can we Have a Moment? took shape when McCartney visited Sotheby’s during the Made in Britain auction exhibition in September 2022, with Head of Photographs, Brandei Estes. Estes explained that if Mary held an exhibition, it would run at the same time as the Made In Britain 2023 exhibition, ahead of the London Sales in March. Mary immediately flashed onto the richness of the theme, celebrating British art over the decades, and began rooting through her archives in search of images that might resonate with Made In Britain. (The theme has appeal for McCartney - in 2008 she exhibited a collection of 30 UK-set images in a show entitled British Style Observed at the Natural History Museum in London)
‘It felt right.’ she reflects today. ‘When Brandei showed me the space, I wandered around the Made in Britain galleries and it felt right, to have an exhibition of photographs, all of which are taken in Britain. That was my starting point. And so, I went back to my archive with Made in Britain in mind and pulled out a selection of evocative photographs from throughout my whole career; all taken in Britain. And then it became, can we have a moment for each one of these?’
Photographs in the exhibition are arranged in ‘clusters’, sets of images presented in groups of four or five, creating dynamic, interdependent narratives. The results encourage the viewer to find harmonic resonances and interplay between the photographs, instead of a linear, or chronological, progression. ‘When I first stood [in the gallery] it was like a blank space,’ says Mary. ‘And thought, how I would like the viewer to experience the exhibition, and the variety of emotions. There’s a real dynamic when you encounter the show, there’s a selection of different sizes and linear perspectives. So it’s like you are on a journey.’
Many of the works emerged from McCartney’s approach to finding the magic in the everyday. ‘It’s really all about the adventure of life. A lot of them are not [formally] set up. What really interests me are observed moments. I know that I’ve got my camera, I know I’m looking for images, I kind of know where I’m going to be, who I’m going to be with. And the thing that always keeps me interested and excited is finding those unknown moments. That is the exciting challenge.’
'The thing that always keeps me interested and excited is finding those unknown moments. That is the exciting challenge.’
This creative mode has long been McCartney’s modus operandi. Born into an exceptionally creative family, some of her earliest memories are of watching her mother Linda work on her own photographs in her darkrooms during the 1970s and 1980s. Linda maintained her passion for photography during the hectic years touring and recording with her husband in Wings and then his solo years, into the 1990s. Looking through Linda’s photography from those years, her influence on Mary is clear - the shrewd compositional eye, the love of family, friends, animals and nature, the uncanny ability to zoom in on a poignant, quietly dramatic moment. And, like her daughter, in her candid portraiture, Linda cherished finding subjects away from the spotlight, capturing moments of intimacy and calm in the everyday. In 2015, mother and daughter were united in art when the Gagosian Gallery in New York presented a joint exhibition of Mary and Linda’s works, in Mother Daughter, juxtaposing Mary and Linda’s work in poignant dialogues with each other.
Incidentally, we are speaking a few days after the National Portrait Gallery announced an exhibition of photographs taken by her dad, from within the tornado of early Beatlemania, an announcement that took many by surprise. ‘Yes, Dad doesn’t take that many pictures, but he has a really lovely archive,’ Mary says. ‘And for the National Portrait Gallery, in June, there are photographs taken when he was in the Beatles. It’s like a diary. It’s about the adventure he was on, being with his friends. I think it’s going to be amazing.’
Whilst Linda famously only took two night-classes in photography, whilst studying art history at the University of Arizona (where, Mary tells me, a retrospective of her work is on show in March 2023 - ‘that’s a full circle moment!’), McCartney attended a short course at the University of Westminster where she ‘learned to use the camera, F-stops, shutter speeds - a manual way of shooting, on film’. From there, she began taking on editorial assignments, working at her dad’s photography archive, and building up a portfolio of art projects. She credits this formative period as being essential in learning the art and craft of shooting quickly and effectively, adapting and designing lighting and working in diverse environments. And light remains a crucial part of McCartney’s palette. ‘Certain light can make anything look good. And shooting in England, you find it has a different light to say, the United States. Or in Scandinavia, where it’s crisp.’
Today, she still finds shooting editorial to exacting briefs, as being an invaluable - if occasionally nerve-wracking - part of her practise. ‘Even now, I can be quite apprehensive in these situations, because sometimes going in, I might not know the person I’m going to meet. So, it’s about being prepared, having an idea in mind and then being open to anything happening, really. But while it’s good to be prepared, you don’t want to be over-prepared - you don’t want to kill the moment.’
In 2004, she exhibited Off Pointe at The Royal Opera House in London, a series documenting Royal Ballet dancers after hours, in dressing rooms, bathrooms, hallways and backstage. Having been granted full behind the scenes access into their pressured lives, McCartney lived with the dancers for several days, resulting in poignant portraits of a ballet corps off-stage, training, rehearsing, performing, relaxing, and supporting each other.
‘I would spend a lot of time with the dancers,’ recalls Mary. ‘I would stay there, wake up in the morning and start to take pictures as they’re waking up. You know, there was a real trust, I wanted to show what goes on offstage and highlight the grit, the relationships, and the real life. But also, to do it in a sort of, very fleshy, tactile, sensual way as well’
Works from the Off Pointe series was subsequently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2018 and shown again by the Royal Photographic Society at the 2019 Photo London Pavilion Commission at Somerset House. Mary was acclaimed for the sensitivity and empathy she brought to the works. And there was another dimension too - going on tour with her parents in her childhood, she and her siblings were immersed in a global touring carnival, witnessing first-hand the work involved in taking a show around the world for a couple of hours of magic onstage every night. The memories of the stresses, pressures and euphoria clearly remain.
‘I have these visuals of being behind the scenes from growing up, seeing Mum and Dad and all their crew… I know all the things that are going on back there. Like, all the people that it takes to make the moment when they are on stage, there’s so much work going on backstage. And the lead-up too. So, with the Royal Ballet, I focussed on the Corps de Ballet, because they had a communal dressing room. That was what really made that project for me - the fact that they invited me into their life. Without having to speak it out loud, we just had an understanding. It was a really fulfilling project.’
'I have these visuals of being behind the scenes from growing up, seeing Mum and Dad and all their crew… I know all the things that are going on back there'
Another stand-out series began in 2013, when the Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, allowed Mary unfettered access - again, backstage! - whilst he was preparing for his performance as Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The project, which began as a series of images of Rylance, evolved at the actor’s personal request, into a superb series of portraits of cast, crew, and musicians backstage before, during and after the performance. ‘They weren’t posing for me,’ Mary says of that project. ‘The ensemble invited me into their world and were getting on with their craft, while I was there, looking for the photograph.’
In The Gallery: Mary McCartney on the Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction and Now Evening Auction
For the Twelfth Night project, Mary mainly shot with black and white film, without using a flash, the film ratcheted up to 1600 ISO. The works in Can we Have a Moment? span colour and black and white, but it’s the latter that still has a special place in McCartney’s creative practise. Growing up, she says, black and white photography was a major inspiration as were some of the most influential names in photography, such as Cindy Sherman (‘She’s very, very influential. Even though my style isn’t like hers, just looking at her photographs, it’s like you can hear her brain whirring!’), Diane Arbus (‘I love how she would wander, find real characters, real individuals,’) and another icon of monochrome photography, Berenice Abbot (‘She did that classic, black and white - and when I started, I was very much into that. Berenice would remove a scene from say, the street, for example, and move it to a world where it sort of has this curiosity to it, or a simplicity to it. By being black and white and having a certain tone, it really makes it intriguing.’)
Commissioned portraits, art projects and editorial stories emerged as the backbone of McCartney’s photography. This could mean anything from moving photographs of her mother shortly before her death in 1998, to a charming portrait of the late Elizabeth II in July 2015, marking the 63rd year of her reign. And she has enjoyed retrospectives across the world, such as the 2022 exhibition at Chateau La Coste in Provence, France (Moments of Affection) which responded to a post-lockdown world, reinforcing a message of togetherness and intimacy.
‘It was a really inspiring place to show in,’ Mary says. ‘And I was looking through my archives, to see what I could do in that space. The title came when I thought about how we weren’t allowed to be around people, we couldn’t touch, so seeing a photograph like Hello (also included in Can we Have a Moment?) - people sitting together, touching feet - became very charged for me. ‘
Our time together is drawing to a close. Mary is peckish and politely rejects my offer of roasting a few tomatoes on the fire for a quick snack. Talk turns to food. A committed advocate of vegetarianism, as are all the McCartneys, Mary’s forthcoming book project brings together her passions for veggie cooking, photography and spending quality time with friends and family. ‘It’s going to be called Feeding Creativity,’ she says, over more peppermint tea. ‘I actually started this a few years ago, but it’ll be out this autumn. So, I promote Meat Free Mondays, I’ve done cooking shows and I’ve been invited to do cookbooks. So, this is a portrait cookbook - I come up with a recipe for someone creative, who I admire, I make it and I take it to them. We eat together and the book will have an anecdote from our time together, a portrait of them, shots of the food and the recipe.’ And compiling the book has, clearly, been a blast for Mary, who has been flexing her culinary muscles in coming up with foods for her favourite people. As mentioned earlier, artists Gilbert & George are included, having consuming their vegan BLTs earlier that day. But the dapper twosome are part of an exciting roll call of gastronomic guests.
'Ringo is allergic to garlic and onions, so it was a challenge. Like, what can I make for him?'
‘Cindy Sherman… she’s such an influence, that was very nerve-wracking but exciting. I made her a leek and potato soup. I was told what Michelle Yeoh’s favourite flavours were, so I made her a soup containing them. Jeff Koons got a cake with all sorts of brightly covered sprinkles. And for Woody Harrelson, I made hearty, smoky hotdogs. They’re delicious, stuffed in a hot dog bun with ketchup and mustard. You see, I like to feed people, I feel when you’re cooking for anyone, you’re putting yourself on the line because you just want them to enjoy it.’
Mary also cooked for her dad, and his old pal Ringo. What did she make for the ex-Beatles?
‘I did pasta for them. And that was fun, because Ringo is allergic to garlic and onions, so it was a challenge. Like, what can I make for him? So, he got a creamy asparagus and pea pasta. But he eats well, yeah. He like broccoli, he likes asparagus, he likes baked potatoes.’
Paul and Ringo not only make appearances in the forthcoming Feeding Creativity book, but were also involved in another of Mary’s projects, the acclaimed 2022 documentary If These Walls Could Speak, about legendary London recording studios, Abbey Road. Famous for being the home to the Beatles for most of their recording career, Mary pulls the focus back to survey the building’s unique place in British culture, from early years in the 1930s to present day.
The daunting scale of the project was matched by the affection with which Abbey Road is regarded, around the world. Not only home to the Beatles, and a host of 60s and 70s rock stars, but as Mary explores, a tapestry of cultural history, related through the voices of guests filmed on site. Her portrait of the building is constructed by memories from Paul and Ringo, Elton, Dave Gilmour, and Jimmy Page to contemporary voices such as Liam and Noel Gallagher, Celeste, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason as well as oodles of exciting archive footage and thrilling performances, old and new.
'When I was shooting the interviews with the talent, I used a lot of the same sensibilities with which I approach a photographic shoot - I relied a lot on what I’ve learnt throughout the years with my photography'
‘I really enjoyed making it,’ she says. ‘It was a bigger team and a bigger undertaking than anything I had done before but I think my photography held me in good stead. When I was shooting the interviews with the talent, I used a lot of the same sensibilities with which I approach a photographic shoot - creating a lit space which without using flash. So, what came across in doing the interviews was an intimacy, something that also comes across in my photography, I think. I relied a lot on what I’ve learnt throughout the years with my photography - creating a relaxed space which feels collaborative.’
There is a sense of warmth and affection in the documentary that conveys the deep attachment Mary has to the place. Paul and Linda would take her with them to the studio from babyhood, when McCartney pére was establishing his solo career following the breakup of the Beatles. In that turbulent time, he produced his debut solo album announcing to the press its themes were of ‘Home. Family. Love’.
Pictures from that period show how this fitted together, symbolised by the sight of baby Mary crawling about on the floor, peering at studio consoles or happily ensconced in her playpen as her newly-wed parents composed and played together, underlining the secure domesticity and peace of the family unit. It’s no coincidence then, that to this day, in the intimacy, trust and wit we see constantly in Mary McCartney’s diverse body of work, from If These Walls Could Speak and Feeding Creativity, to Moments of Affection, Off Pointe and Can we Have a Moment?, that common spirit and sense of warmth, togetherness, family, home and love radiates with undimmed passion and light.
Can we Have a Moment? is at Sotheby's New Bond Street, between 9 March - 9 June 2023