LINDA MCCARTNEY IN PERSPECTIVE
WHEN LINDA Eastman (later McCartney) became the first woman to shoot a Rolling Stone magazine front cover with a portrait of Eric Clapton in 1968, she could never have imagined that 50 years later her images would hang in the Victoria and Albert Museum, alongside other iconic Jewish photographers and more, recognised as part of the medium’s history.
Thirteen works by McCartney will be displayed in the V&A’s new photography centre opening on October 12, selected from a wider gift of 63 photos donated by her family earlier this year.
Taken between the 1960s and 1990s, the images include the Beatles in Brian Epstein’s Belgravia home celebrating the launch of their fabled album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; The Yardbirds seemingly caught unawares on a London street, watching a passer-by and Twiggy off modelling duty during a visit to the McCartney home after Linda and Paul’s daughter, Mary was born in 1969.
“In all her work we see freedom of movement, energy, naturalness and spontaneity,” says Susanna Brown, the V&A’s curator of photographs who selected the works on display, adding, “nothing is forced or posed.”
As Mary McCartney, now a photographer, once told the Telegraph, her mother would have the camera with her but wouldn’t hold it up in someone’s face for a long time, so she wouldn’t be clicking all around them.
Her approach would be to chat with her subject, take a snap, put the camera down, so there was never time to pose or feel self-conscious.
There are charming family snapshots like the black and white shot where Paul McCartney stands on a fence while their children James and Stella play.
According to photographer Jillian Edelstein whose own work includes portraits, family and photojournalism: “She is creating a documentary moment where the composition is perfect – as Paul balances, James jumps and Stella is engrossed in her own world.”
Yet McCartney’s photography is often overlooked. Even though she was named US Female Photographer of the Year in 1967, thanks to her rock star portraits, two years later she married Paul McCartney and became better known as his wife.
Now, at last, her work is being placed by V&A in prime position in the new centre, which charts the development of photography from the 1830s to today. The new gallery will also showcase some of the most iconic 20th century Jewish photographers who, according to the museum’s senior curator of photographs, Martin Barnes, make up a third of this new centre.
Pictures on show include Man Ray’s experimental rayographs, Robert Capa’s searing war pictures, Mary Ellen Mark’s pictures of misfits, Gisèle Freund’s incisive portraiture and Frank Horvat’s ground-breaking documentary take on fashion.
There is a “poetic tradition” amongst Jewish photographers that is “unflinching and honest” which McCartney shares, says Barnes, citing her emotive shot of BB King’s performance in full flight where his guitar notes and voice can almost be heard or her pictures of weary Sussex coalmen.
Brown says the museum is highlighting McCartney’s diversity, different techniques and how she experimented with processes including Polaroids, bromides and cyanotypes, a printing process that produces bright blue images on white paper discovered in 1842.
Unknown work is on display for the first time, revealing her quirky take on everyday life and an eye for
the abstract. Consider the Polaroids of discarded toys, sandals with red balloons inside and a hooded figure walking out of shot; among others that have never before been out of the family archive.
“A lot of her Polaroids are quiet, humble still lifes,” says Brown, “which brings our attention to humble things and elevates them to worthy of being photographed.”
Her working processes are laid bare too, for example a contact sheet from a famous Jimi Hendrix photo session from 1968. “Her markings on the sheet shows her process of selection and how she captured his subtle changes in facial expression and gesture,” explains Brown, and “we see her decision making process of choosing the shot that best encapsulates Jimi and shows the full range of her abilities.”
Showbusiness was in her blood long before she became Linda McCartney. Born in New York in 1941 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, her father, Lee Eastman (formerly Leopold Vail Epstein) was an entertainment lawyer whose clients included band leader, Tommy Dorsey and artist, Mark Rothko. Her mother, Louise Sara Lindner, was from a retailing family which founded a major department store in Cleveland, Ohio.
Linda Eastman married and had a daughter, Heather, but divorce in 1965 led to her self-taught career in photography as she began working for Town & Country Magazine and went on shoots with her professional photographer boyfriend, David Dalton. Her big break came in 1967 when she was the only photographer allowed on to a boat on the Hudson River in New York where the Rolling Stones were performing. She also became the unofficial house photographer of the legendary Filimore East concert Hall in New York’s Lower East Side where she photographed Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and The Doors among others. Run by the Jewish rock promoter, Bill Graham, the venue, open from 1968 to 1971, featured some of the biggest rock acts of its time.
As a fan, says Barnes, “Linda was able to get close to the musicians and invade their personalities and performance in a natural way.” McCartney herself spoke of always trying to dig underneath the “veneer” of celebrity subjects.
Marrying a Beatle led to new opportunities outside photography, which may also explain why her photography was overshadowed. She was part of her husband’s 1970’s rock group, Wings, became an animal rights activist and a vegetarian food entrepreneur in 1991, until she died of breast cancer in 1998 aged 56.
The V&A has dedicated a huge, purpose built showcase to give her work prominence, says Brown, for up to two years as the display rotates with other pictures in the archive.
Close by is one of Irving Penn’s cigarette images, Camel Pack, Mark Cohen’s close up Philadelphia street scenes as well as Martin Parr’s humorous take on British life which, says Barnes, integrates McCartney’s work with photojournalism, street photography and conceptual fine art photography.
“From my perspective it’s really good work, having access to the right people and having the right manner, courtesy and business approach and being able to publicise the work,” he concludes.
The V&A Photography Centre opens October 12 2018 www.vam.ac.uk
Linda McCartney, photographed by Paul McCartney in 1969
(from left) Paul and Mary, Scotland, 1970; the new V&A centre; Jimi Hendrix, 1968