Photos of the Beatles hanging in a museum
  • WhoLinda McCartney
  • WhenNow until 01 November 2020
  • WhereWalker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • WhatThis major exhibition of Linda McCartney’s photography includes more than 250 iconic images, from the music scene of the 1960s, to family life with Paul.

Recently I visited the Linda McCartney photography exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. My first gallery visit in months. My first non-shop visit in months in fact. Let’s get the elephant in the room out the room and roaming back in its natural habitat. I felt safe. It’s a ticketed event and you get a time-slot so it will never be excessively busy. Masks are now required by law in museums unless you have a medical or disability reason not to wear one. Social distancing rules still apply. Not everyone has the ability to instinctively know what 2 metres is. I spent some amount of time letting people pass me by so I could really look at a photograph. That was the only “issue” I had relating to Covid-19. I could enjoy the exhibition at my leisure. I felt safe.

Let’s get this out the way. I’m not a Beatles fan. Living near Liverpool that is like saying “I don’t support Footballers FC.” It’s not that I dislike their music. There are tracks I enjoy like. However it doesn’t move me in the same way hearing the Chemical Brothers or DJ Shadow did. Sorry Beatles fans.

Why am I at a Beatles photography exhibition then?

I’m not. The exhibition is a retrospective on the photography career of Linda McCartney. In case you don’t know she was a successful photographer before she met Paul McCartney and before she was known for a range of veggie food products. (Great sausage rolls btw). “But doesn’t this exhibition focus on Paul?” I hear you ask. He crops (photography geek pun) up. However the exhibition covers Linda’s early work, moving through her career, life and exploration of photography. This is not the “Wife of Beatle’s star Paul McCartney” exhibition. Thank funk and soul.

Self Portraits

The exhibition starts with portraits of Linda taken by others. This is a technique she used to make people feel comfortable with the camera. It’s a good technique. I think all photographers should feel what it’s like to be photographed. You have to be able to empathise with the person you’re photographing. I feel that this goes a long way to discussing her way of working. Person first. Gear second. Something I need to remind myself of all the time.

Music Photography

After this the exhibition looks at her music photography. It’s candid. Calm when it needs to be and full of life other times. This approach meant in 1968 she was the first female photographer to do a portrait cover photo for Rolling Stone Magazine. She didn’t use a flash. Natural light candid photos.

“…what I really prefer doing – what really gets my best pictures – is to spend all day with people and make a nice day of It, then the pictures are sure to come out alright.” – Linda McCartney, 1976.

It sounds simple doesn’t it? 1 camera. 1 lens, maybe. No lighting gear to setup and configure. People having a nice time and a little box to capture light. Sounds simple but being able to put a stranger at ease enough to point a camera at them to photograph that moment without breaking it is an incredible talent. If you need further proof if that then look closely at the photos and you’ll see a black border on them. This isn’t added in Photoshop. That’s the ‘key line’ frame which indicates the photograph has not been cropped. No rotating, tweaking, zooming or anything like that. She instinctively knew how to get a good photo. Today we have so much technology to enable us to get the perfect photo we can forget that it’s about what is in front of the camera that is important.

Contact sheets and experimentation

The exhibition features Contact Sheets. If you don’t know these are sheets that people used to decide which photograph was the photograph from the photoshoot. These are important because they show the moments before and after a well known photograph. You can see what led up to the famous Rolling Stones photo. It provides huge insight into the day and the photographer. These were a highlight of the exhibition for me.

Polaroids and Sun Prints show that Linda McCartney enjoyed exploring what she could do with the medium of photography. Like others she appreciated the immediacy of Polaroid. One click and you have a print in your hand. That is something valued even today in the age of digital photography. You can have 1 million photographs in your cloud based camera library but 1 physical print means the world. Sun Prints, known as cyanotypes, are a way of producing a photographic print using special photographic solutions applied to paper and left with a negative on top to develop in the sun. What you get is a photograph with a painterly quality to it. They’re lovely to look at. I enjoyed seeing this work here.

What she loved – family and nature

Nature was an important part of Linda McCartney’s life. She was an animal rights activist who launched a vegetarian / vegan food range. Even her use of natural light and minimal camera gear makes you question what is ethical and environmentally friendly photography? There’s a section on her love of the natural world that features a photo called ‘Lucky Spot in Daisy Field.’ I thought to myself “That is a lucky spot.” Turns out the horse was called “Lucky Spot”. It wasn’t a random moment. It is a beautiful photograph and worth taking a minute to view the large reproduction of it.

The second half of the exhibition takes the skills Linda developed and focuses them on what she loved, her family. Even without the Beatles aspect these are wonderful photographs to look at. There are travel photos. Silly moments at home. Perfectly timed Cartier-Bresson-esque jumps. Photograph what you love and your passion will come across. That is evident here in every frame. You can even apply Robert Capa’s old line “If your photographs aren’t good enough you are not close enough.” These are good photographs because she is close to her family.

It’s like browsing someones Instagram account except this is the 1960/70/80s. Decades before and without the pressure of being on trend or using the perfect filter. They’re authentic without a need to be authentic. They are moments.

I leave the exhibition with a better understanding of Linda McCartney the woman not the wife of famous Beatle. I can see how she applied photography to what she loved in life. It allowed her to explore the world around her in the way a photographer knows best. Connected to the moment whilst able to be detached enough to photograph it without breaking it.

The exhibition is on now until 01 Nov 2020 at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Booking is required. I highly recommend the audio tour which is available to anyone with a smartphone or tablet device, or can be enjoyed at home.