Review: Linda McCartney Retrospective, Walker Art Gallery

Lucky Spot in Daisy Field. Sussex, 1985 © Paul McCartney / Photographer: Linda McCartney

Review of Linda McCartney Retrospective
Walker Art Gallery, until 1st November 2020

words by Lorraine Bacchus 

From the first moment you walk in and see her signature writ large in bright neon, you sense that this retrospective of Linda McCartney’s photographs is going to be a joy.  And so it turns out to be. 

There is poignancy too, of course, as with any look-back at the life’s work of an artist.  But in this case all the more so because so many of the images are of the years she shared with Paul and their children, Heather, Mary, Stella and James.  The happiness emanating from the photos is palpable and one can only imagine there would have been some emotional moments for Paul and Mary as they went through Linda’s vast archive to select the ones for this exhibition.

But first there are the 1960’s music years, when Linda made her name as a photographer.  Her pictures stood out for their spontaneity and informality – using her camera, as she said, to capture moments rather than posed shots. Her visual style perfectly echoed the changing of the times – times that the, now iconic, musicians were themselves heralding.  Like most of them, she was young too, with her finger on the pulse of what was happening, intuitively recognising that something different was required to portray this new music scene. They’re all here in this show –Hendrix, The Stones, Jim Morrison, The Beatles (of course!) and Clapton – with her 1968 image of him, she became the first female photographer to have a cover photograph on Rolling Stone magazine.

Linda and Paul were married a year after this and although there was a shift in the focus of her work, the thread running through all the images is of an eye for ordinary details, which become extra-ordinary in her capturing of them.  She made frequent use of mirrors and windows, reflecting for me the words of her compatriot, the poet Emily Dickinson, “Tell the whole truth but tell it slant”.  The broken mirror in the image of Francis Bacon’s studio is shattering in itself, conveying as it does so powerfully the violence that was often a feature of his life.  In contrast, the gentle picture she has caught of Paul in the rear view mirror of the car he’s driving is, he says, one of his favourites.  Called “My Love” it also symbolises for them a specific time in London, the cars dating it to the late 70’s. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed … the No. 4 London bus, which is still doing the same route and which I used on my daily commute when I lived there.

It is affecting to be in Liverpool looking at the photos Linda took in the city over the many years she, Paul and their children came back here on visits to his dad.  Some of these have never before been shown in public.  Mary McCartney recalls those trips with great fondness: “Liverpool holds a really special place for all of us.  But she really embraced it as a city and loved the people.”  The streets in these pictures, of the bus on Dale Street for example, so empty of modern traffic, look eerily prescient of these Covid times.  And the 1985 one of artists Gilbert & George, who are normally almost glued together, looks like they’re practising today’s social distancing.  The image of the audience in Chile during Paul’s 1993 World tour also sparked a Covid-related emotion – that of nostalgia for such innocent events as a crowd excitedly coming together to enjoy live music. 

One of the features of this exhibition is the detailed information alongside the photographs about the type of print, the specialist paper, and the camera Linda used, some of which are on display.  For any student of early and pre-digital photographic techniques this makes the exhibition a master class in what can be achieved through experimentation and creative flair.  Some of her contact sheets are also here and these show that she rarely felt the need to crop an image.  They’re also a fascinating insight into her final choice of which photograph to print.  Throughout this retrospective, Linda’s preferred use of natural light is evident and is particularly striking in the Cyanotypes and Sun-prints.  Scotland, she felt, “had the best light in the world”.  

For all her technical knowledge, Linda’s free spirit is what really shines through here; there is nothing pretentious or elitist about her images. A photograph is always a moment frozen in time and Linda’s spontaneous pictures exemplify such fleeing memories.  “My photos are me”, she said.  The essence of her work is summed up by Sandra Penketh, Executive Director for Galleries & Collections Care at National Museums Liverpool: “ From famous faces to intimate family portraits, her wonderful work is full of love, insight and humour – qualities for all of us to embrace right now”.  

Linda McCartney Retrospective, 8 August – 1 November 2020, Walker Art Gallery.
Tickets £9 for adults and £8 for concessions.  Free entry for Members of National Museums Liverpool.