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Behind the lens

Interview with Linda McCartney

Excerpts from BBC’s interview with Linda McCartney in 1994

Learning to take photos

Photography really happened when I was living in Arizona and a friend of mine wanted to go to this art class at the Tucson Art Centre and it was in the evenings and she said “Please come along with me, I really want to go.” And I said “No way.” She said “Well I won’t go if you don’t come,” so I went and I thought it would be teaching you what a camera was and everything, and it wasn’t, it was looking at photographs from Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams… really great photographers. Dorothea Lange was the biggest in my eyes. She photographed the migrant workers… And Walker Evans was the other [great] one. Again I think it was that whole period that inspired me.

Hazel Archer, who was the teacher in the class, said “OK, I’ll see you next week, take your pictures and come back.” So I went up to her and I said “Well I don’t have a camera and I don’t know how to take pictures,” [and] she said: “Borrow a camera, buy a roll of film, and take pictures.” She inspired me to become a photographer, because of the photographs she showed me, unlike fashion photography, they were photographs of life, of people, of sadness, of poverty, of nature, everything—I loved it.

First big break
When the Rolling Stones were trying to get publicity for themselves, when they were touring over here, they sent Town & Country an invitation which I opened and put in my drawer and thought, “Well, I’ll go to that one!” Someone came up to me and said “Well, we just don’t have room for all the photographers and all the journalists so you will be the photographer.” I thought “Oh my god, I’m not really a photographer, does she know?” But I bluffed my way, I mean I didn’t bluff it, I figured it’s her choice. So, I got on the boat and had a lot of film with me and really enjoyed taking pictures. I think my only worry was that the pictures wouldn’t turn out, in truth… I was a bit shy and introverted, but looking out through the lens I saw, and I forgot myself and I could actually see life. This enthusiasm came out of me, and it did, photography changed my life in that way, so it wasn’t just the Rolling Stones, it was the whole thing.

Shooting rock portraits in the late 1960s
As things started happening and I took pictures for like Rolling Stone and that kind of thing, big glossy magazines asked me to take photographs for them. And, Mademoiselle were doing an issue ’Models with Musicians,’ so who do they want to take the pictures? Me. Oh, that was nerve wracking, because once you do things like that, you are assigned to do the whole editorial of the magazine. That did make me nervous.

And I sort of had to pick what the musicians would be and I got to pick the models and everything. So I said well great, we’ll use Jimi Hendrix Experience, Tiny Tim, you know, I just thought of people that were around… Aretha Franklin. You know it was quite a buzz. You wouldn’t think Aretha, this great soul singer, would agree to dress in fashion, but she was great, so great. And we met at the Hilton hotel in Los Angeles and she was in tears, and she was sort of drinking vodka and she was just a mess, so depressed. She had this big manila envelope of money, paying off the band, and she was going through really bad times.

I took pictures of her, really a beautiful face, with these sort of tears and everything, and the sadness was amazing. And then we would go outside with the wig and the clothes and everything and the contrast—it is amazing how fashion looks so glamorous and behind it is so much sadness really.

But the best thing was after I did all this and I gave them the photographs, it turned out I got $ 750 for a black and white page, and $ 1000 for a colour page—what!? I would have done it for nothing, if they had only known…

Jimi was very sensitive and very very insecure. He really didn’t reckon himself and he used to burn the flag, and play the guitar with his teeth, and after a while he told me how much he hated doing that. But I said, “Look, you are the most inventive guitar player I’ve ever seen.” I mean, off stage, he would just play all the time, brilliant… [I said] “Stop doing that stuff!” He went “Oh no, they won’t come and see me if I don’t do it.” They would’ve come and seen him more I think if he’d stopped doing that rubbish. But he was very insecure, as are a lot of artists. Jimi was just so sweet. It’s so sad.

I had no idea I was photographing future icons, but, I loved [Jim Morrison’s] music, I loved him as a person, I loved all The Doors actually—Ray and Robbie and John, in fact The Doors were never popular really until after Jim’s death. I mean, you look at the movie on The Doors, it was nothing like that, you know they had massive crowds and “Jim, Jim…” None of that. I mean they could barely get arrested, in fact he did get arrested, poor guy. But Jim Morrison again was a poet, not a sex object. And, I mean, I tell you… you saw how he grew a beard and got fat and everything, he was trying to say “Look, I don’t want the veneer, I want you to see what’s in my heart.” I remember Jim coming over one day and he was very agitated and really upset, and I said “What’s the problem?” He was just down in the Village and had run into someone he had gone to school with. And he said he was a very unpopular, very fat unattractive kid, and then he said he ran into this kid who was all over him. He just couldn’t handle it—the fact that he was there as a kid, a fat human being and no one wanted to know. Now he was starting to get known and she was like… so it was again the veneer, the outside, that she was going for, not the person. And it really, really upset him… you could see he was very upset.

[Janis Joplin] was from Texas, just a downhome Texas woman who wasn’t particularly good-looking. So she was self-conscious about that, very much. And she used to have to drink a hell of a lot before she went on stage. I mean I remember sitting with her in LA in the dressing room and she knocked off a bottle of Southern Comfort just to get on stage, just to get the confidence to get out there and give something of herself. A lot of bands I photographed by accident just because I loved taking pictures of them. But at the Fillmore, The Who and Hendrix and BB King and Big Brother and so many acts would play there constantly because every Friday and Saturday night the Fillmore would have a show.

BB used to support so many of the acts at The Fillmore. He had a lovely red guitar he used to call Lucille that someone stole. Can you imagine stealing BB King’s guitar? I didn’t do one of those “Oh I’ll move the camera to get the movement,” it was just sort of synergy, you know, just happened. Chemistry.

On the photographic instinct
I think you just feel instinctively, you got to just click on the moment. Not before it and not after it. I think if you are worried about light meters and all that stuff, you just miss it. For me it just came from my inners, as they say. Just excitement, I love it—I get very excited.

When I think about how and when one releases the shutter, it’s for a multitude of reasons. Every photographer is searching for a definition that he or she doesn’t really know how to explain until after the fact. When we are holding the print in our hand, then we know what it was we were really looking for and whether or not we found it. The real thing that makes a photographer is more than just a technical skill, more than turning on the radio. It has to do with the force of inner intention. I have always called this a visual signature. It has to do with the kind of visual overtone that emanates from the work of certain photographers who have managed to gain access into this level of performance within the medium. I don’t think of skill, talent, technique, n’importe quoi. I’m only interested, as Bill Grant said, in the results. It’s the results that count.

Meeting The Beatles
When I came to England, I wanted to photograph the Beatles, and Stevie Winwood, who had since left The Spencer Davis Group and started a group called Traffic. So that was great.

And then The Beatles I wanted to photograph as well. So I took my portfolio over to Hilly House, their office, and Brian Epstein’s assistant said “Fine, you can leave your portfolio and we’ll get back to you.” So after about two or three days he got back to me saying “Oh yes, Brian loved your photographs, and yes you may photograph The Beatles. They’re releasing an album called Sergeant Pepper, and they are doing a press thing at Brian’s house and you can be one of the photographers. And, by the way, Brian loved your photo of Brian Jones and one of the ones of Keith Moon.” I said, he can have them! So that’s how that happened, too, I got to photograph The Beatles, so my dreams came true.

I was nervous to photograph The Beatles because… I was nervous! I think also because there were a lot of other photographers there. I didn’t feel artistically satisfied [by the pictures] except for the one of John and Paul with their thumbs up, because I felt like that was interaction, and that was the photo that nobody else got.

No one knew I was a photographer. When I married Paul, to [the fans] I was an American divorcee, I think they called me… “Who is this American divorcee? Why isn’t he marrying his girlfriend he had been going with for years?” You know, we didn’t prepare them.

On photography
My photography is me. I’m not influenced at all by critics… I grew up in a visual family and I’m a very visual person and the immediacy for me also in photography is like… I was trying to make social comments in my photographs, still am. So I mean now, I’ll go and I’ll take butcher shop windows, or meat being unloaded from a truck, or if I could get in a slaughter house I’d show the horrors of life. I’m against animal slaughter and against people eating animals, and experimenting on animals and wearing animals.

I do a lot of it for charity now, and I don’t charge anything now for Lynx, who are the anti-fur people. I did a big campaign for them to try and show people that it’s horrible to wear animal’s skin, and that includes leather, because that’s animal’s skin… So, photography as a social comment really interests me, it’s changed for me now. And I think the social comment is more interesting. I think a photograph has to stand on its own without any words. Like this Dorothea Lange picture I was telling you about, I mean that picture, it’s so in my mind and it says it all. You don’t even need to know anything about it, it just said it all. And I think that’s it for me. To get you to look at it and feel emotion.

A good photograph to me is… something that will make you react, stop and look and think really. You know, really… a picture is worth a thousand words.