Behind “Those Flashing Eyes”

Linda McCartney Retrospective, Walker Art Gallery, until 1st November, £9

It’s not unusual for me to make guesses about what to expect from an exhibition before I see it. Less usual is for me to make these assumptions when I’m not especially familiar with the work of the artist. But you tend to think you do probably know what to expect from a Linda McCartney retrospective, curated by Paul & Mary McCartney, in Liverpool, don’t you?

She carried(s) a lot of public-eye baggage: wife of a Beatle, member of Wings, creator of very good veggie pies & sausages. And as all of these things are bigger in the public imagination of McCartney than her work as a photographer. Plus anything connected to that band runs a risk of becoming more about subject than artist – oh look, it’s the Abbey Road shoot!

The Beatles, Abbey Road, London, 1969

Coming from this base, then, I was delighted to leave the show with such a strong sense of McCartney’s personality as a photographer. I almost hesitate to say that, not wanting to step into the fraught territory of making assumptions about a public figure. But the show is all about the actions of the woman behind the camera, not her name. It’s that from the moment we step into the exhibition through a room of images of her, rather than immediately by her. It’s a big show – maybe a little too big – but by the end of it you certainly feel both that you know what her photography was about.

Let’s get this “Sixties” thing out of the way. It happens that this time photographing some of the biggest musicians of her age was where in McCartney cut her artistic teeth and made her name, and the show treats it as such. The key to how it avoids getting bogged down in celebrity is that there’s no sense that “stardom” is what McCartney is actually interested in. Rather, you can sense the depth of relationships between subject and artist, and it’s this which makes them genuinely excellent work. She’s trusted enough to be allowed to see the personality which goes beyond persona, and the results are delightfully unguarded. Whether it’s Jim Morrison staring into space from stage or Yoko Ono starting candidly back into the lens, her camerawork is quick enough to capture what these people are truly feeling.

It’s this quality of quickness I particularly enjoy feeling in many of the best works here. She spots a view in a mirror or through a window, and goes for it. Nowhere is this instinct for the shot more needed than when she’s taking photographs from cars, as we find her doing throughout the show. It’s an unforgiving method – nobody’s stopping to pose, so spotting the ideal moment is about intuition as much as craft. The best of these are in the final section called “Life”, where we see moments from around the world.

The other enjoyable part of McCartney’s practice is when she’s working with different techniques. She takes a lot of photos of animals and landscapes – horses, sheep, fields. And they’re absolutely gorgeous. Her platinum prints are high-contrast beauties which somehow convey a warmth in their somewhat desolate, monochrome scenery. Her sun prints achieve the same in their many tones of blue, stunningly hued and gorgeously framed.

“Lucky Spot in Daisy Field”, 1985

When I say her photography has “warmth”, I mean more than a sense of heat. There’s a kindness, affection, and love towards her subjects. Even two dried fish hanging outside some shop don’t inspire disgust, but sympathy. That’s what made her celebrity portraits so special, but it pervades everything she shoots. I’d love to have been photographed by her and seen with such generosity.

That said, it’s probably easy to convey when you genuinely love your subject, and there’s a lot of photos of McCartney family life here – a lot. This is where that tightrope I’d felt this show would walk is most tightly balanced between artistic interest and insight into a circle of fame. Curated by her family this was always going to be tricky territory to navigate. It’s not that the domestic sphere isn’t every bit as valid ground for practice as a celebrity boat cruise or a Scottish wilderness. And the best of these photos do contains those qualities of spontaneity and love which I admire elsewhere. But there’s too many of them here for my taste, particularly polaroids. While I recognise their value to understanding her as a photographer, it does occasionally feel like the focus is less on artistic quality and more on letting us into a family story.

But only occasionally. For the majority of this show I was really pleased that this focused on McCartney’s talent rather than her famous name. Her unique, loving eye is what makes these photographs special, not the celebrity roster. Her ability to create an intimate rappor with her deliberate subjects, and an eye for the right moment with the transient ones, is what makes her work so enjoyable. Far from being a celebrity exercise, this retrospective demonstrates Linda McCartney’s talents and rightfully ensures she, the artist, is centred..

One tip for if you visit: take headphones. The introduction of a phone-accessible audio guide fixes a Covid-induced problem, but only if you know in advance to bring your own equipment. Which I didn’t – a shame as I’d heard it was worth a listen.

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