Moment of Affection

“I love caught moments” – Mary McCartney’s 30 year retrospective captures the beauty of intimacy
By Ella Joyce | Art | 23 June 2022

Family Circle, Sussex, 1999 © Mary McCartney
Courtesy of Château La Coste

For Mary McCartney, the art of photography has always been rooted in capturing unguarded pockets of intimacy within the private lives of those closest to her. It is that same idea she has carried into her latest exhibition, aptly titled Moment of Affection, this thirty-year retrospective offered the British photographer a long-awaited opportunity to delve into her sprawling archive. Curated alongside her long-time collaborator and Gagosian director Georgina Cohen, the solo show will take place in France’s Château La Coste and invites viewers to ponder on the universal emotions of love, loss and desire.

Over the past two years, moments of touch have become increasingly fleeting, and McCartney’s photographs remind us of the importance that lies within physical connection. Be it between humans or inanimate objects, intimacy treads a continuous line between each photograph carefully chosen to articulate the rawness of her artistic style. Delicate portraits of her father Paul McCartney blissfully asleep with a newborn grandchild laid on his chest are showcased alongside a striking black and white image of young teenagers snogging on a London dance floor, while a still-life photograph of trees gently intertwined with one another mimics a human embrace. Every moment captured a poignant definition of affection, and ultimately brings to the fore the brilliance of McCartney’s craft.

In the conversation below, McCartney reflects on her formidable career, the photographer’s who shaped her artistic style and why Dolly Parton would be her dream sitter.

Embrace, London, 2013
© Mary McCartney
Courtesy of Château La Coste

Ella Joyce: Before delving into the exhibition, I wanted to go back to the beginning of your career briefly. Was there a distinct moment or specific image that sparked your interest in photography?
Mary McCartney: I was always really interested in photography and I’ve always observed life as a photographer, spotting moments but not photographing them. So I had this in my mind, but I never thought to take it up as my profession because I just thought everybody should take pictures and it was all in my own head. The pivotal moment was when I was with a friend looking through her photographs and realised she was more intimidated by it and didn’t know how to take pictures. So then I said, “Right, I’m going to do it myself.” I picked up the camera then went to do a short course to learn how to use it because it was a manual Leica R7, so I had to learn how to work the shutter speed, how to do the F stops and what that all meant. From there, I didn’t look back.

EJ: In the formative years of your career were there any photographers or artists who were particularly important in influencing your photographic style?
MM: Photographers that really inspired me were the ones who would get really strong images that never looked pre-organised. I love caught moments. I love Garry Winogrand, he did a book called Women are Beautiful which I really loved. Jacques Henri Lartigue also did a book I loved called The Riviera and I love Richard Billingham whose photo study Ray’s a Laugh had real impact. They’re all things that caught my attention because they’re really amazing captured moments, and I know it’s not as easy as they make it seem. Also, I love Diane Arbus because I too like individuals, walking around observing people who are really original always catch my eye – she really got that, too. Then obviously my mother, I worked with her in her archive and I really got to see her at work day-to-day. Going through her archive really inspired me because she made it look very easy, she put everyone at ease and caught these epic moments that just last forever once you’ve got them. It’s all about capturing moments, I think.

EJ: Definitely, I can imagine growing up around such creativity must have created some really brilliant memories.
MM: It just was very casual, she made it all look easy. I think the people I have mentioned who inspired me, I imagined them wandering around with the camera searching for moments. It could have been very different but that’s what it looks like in my mind.

“There are things that aren’t necessarily people, but they still have a sort of physicality to them – that to me, is a moment of affection.”

Close and Personal
London, 2013 © Mary McCartney Courtesy of Château La Coste

EJ: You’ve photographed some amazing people. The Queen, Harry Styles, Tracy Emin, your father Paul – the list goes on. Has there been a standout moment for you?
MM: With more well known people, I’ll usually be commissioned to go and take that picture, which I absolutely love because it’s an adventure. I’ll get an email inviting me to Buckingham Palace to do a project and it’s top secret, that’s super exciting and amazing but in a weird way, I approached it in a similar way to when taking a portrait of somebody who isn’t so well known. When I went to the palace I just took one person, I didn’t take a big team of people because I felt like Her Majesty would find it distracting and probably wouldn’t love to have lots of people around. I felt like she would be more relaxed and give more by just concentrating on me taking her picture, I didn’t take a lot of equipment either. That was one of those standout moments, going into Buckingham Palace and being able to explore is amazing because I love to be invited into people’s worlds.

I did a Mandarin Oriental photoshoot with Rami Malek in Turkey which was really good fun because he was just such a great guy. Usually you would sort of reccy the first day and then I would get to meet the ‘talent’ the next day. But he was like, “Well, I’ve got nothing to do,” so he wandered around with us the whole time and he was just really collaborative. The people that are collaborative and get it are the ones who really stand out. The Tracy Emin one was really great as well because I’d never met her before, I just emailed saying, “Can I take a portrait of you in bed and may I take a portrait of you dressed up as Frida Kahlo?” I thought she’s either gonna love it or hate it. [laughs] She emailed back saying that she had an affinity with Frida Kahlo, and that she’d be up for it. So I met her on that assignment and she really channelled Frida, when we were chatting she was Tracy and then when I started taking pictures of her as Frida she really went into a different zone. When that kind of thing happens, that’s really interesting and fulfilling.

EJ: Famous or not, everybody always appears very relaxed in front of your lens.
MM: It’s about forming some kind of connection, or some kind of understanding for me to feel fulfilled. One person might be nervous or one person might just be doing their camera face so you need to work harder to get something a bit different. Paris Nude [over two days in 2016, McCartney stayed with her subject Phyllis Wang and documented her nude in her Paris apartment] was much more a project about laying yourself bare, I was in this apartment just following her around nude for two days. At first it was very tense and a bit embarrassing but as we talked and opened up more psychologically about why we were both there, we kind of became much closer, and then it changed. So that was a really interesting study as well, I find it all sort of like psychology.

EJ: It’s fascinating, to sit down and really capture somebody the way you do. This 30 year retrospective at Château La Coste is an amazing milestone but with an archive as sprawling as yours, where does the curation process begin?
MM: I was invited to show at Château La Coste, they’ve got this beautiful barn there. It’s not a huge space, which in a weird way makes it more complicated because you have to rein yourself in and you don’t want to overfill the space. But I’m also aware a certain amount of people visiting won’t have seen my work before so it’s sort of looking for something that will strike a balance. There are so many different routes to take, originally I was meant to be showing in 2019 and then the pandemic hit. So as the pandemic was coming in, this phrase came into my mind, ‘moment of affection’, because suddenly being around people and doing the most normal things like handing someone a cup of tea wasn’t allowed. Any sort of touch or closeness was charged with emotion. That’s where the original title came into my head and then last year, when we were reviewing it to show this summer I knew I still wanted it to be Moment of Affection but it changed into broader meaning for me. For instance, one of the main images is the two trees hugging and it feels very physical but it’s literally the trunks together and the branches intertwined. There are things that aren’t necessarily people, but they still have a sort of physicality to them – that to me, is a moment of affection.

EJ: The title definitely feels like an ode to the loss of intimacy we’ve had over the past two years and deepening that into different mediums so it’s not just interpreted on a human level is really interesting.
MM: Absolutely, the one of the candles also encompasses that. When I go past churches, I wander in and light candles for passed loved ones that aren’t here anymore to say a little hello to them as I light it. That feels very human to me, I love the height of the candles and all of the flames as some of them are lit and some aren’t. The contrast of the really darl background against the flames almost make it feel like they’re dancing on top of the candle – it looks like a forest in my mind as well. For me, it evokes a lot of emotion and I presume it’s going to do the same for the viewer. It will be really complete as an image once the viewer is there because my process is very much focused on what I think about an image, but then I’m very much interested in what the viewer perceives and what memories or thoughts it evokes in them. I’ll be very interested to find that out as they come and see the show.

Frisky, Sussex, 2016
© Mary McCartney
Courtesy of Château La Coste

EJ: I wanted to ask you about Devotion, the image of a Geisha preparing for a show in Tokyo. It felt reminiscent of the concept behind your 2004 series Off Pointe photographing the Royal Ballet after hours, what is it that draws you to those moments of ritual before and after a performance?
MM: I’m kind of obsessed with it because when you watch a performance you know that those people have gone through so much training, devoted a big portion of their time and life to the process of learning that craft. I was in Japan, and I just asked, “Is there any way I could meet a geisha?” As you rightly say, I’m very much interested in that process of watching them prepare. So I met her and I photographed the process from when she arrived, she’d massage oils in her hands and on her face and then they do the makeup and then the robes. I photographed from the beginning of the process to the end. In the photograph I’ve picked for a Moment of Affection it shows her with what they call her ‘aunt’ who is the woman helping put her robes on, she is sort of like her mentor – that’s how I understood it.

What was also interesting about that interaction was we couldn’t speak each other’s language, which I loved. So she arrived in my hotel room, and as I photographed her getting ready I just sort of wandered around her. We communicated without speaking, you can photograph and encourage each other without sharing a dialogue – I felt like I really connected with her but we actually didn’t speak. When I go to a performance, I become fascinated with wondering who that person is. How did they get to be in this point in their life, and so brilliant at what they do? I know lots must have gone on behind the moment. They must have given up a lot of time, given up doing other things or given up relationships to devote their time to it, hence the title Devotion. I’m very interested in that process, whenever I can I will always ask someone if I can follow them off the stage or see moments behind the scenes.

EJ: When you think about things in that way it really becomes a study of humanity above all else.
MM: Definitely, I feel like sometimes people can become flippant when they think of celebrities and they can think certain things but they are that successful because they are so good at what they do. They’ve devoted time and worked really hard to get there, I find that quite interesting. I did a study with Mark Rylance where he allowed me to photograph him putting on his costume and make-up to play Olivia in Twelfth Night. That was so interesting, because he really did just carry on doing his process, I could tell he wasn’t faking poses for me because I was there. He just really allowed me to photograph the process because he and I had a good connection. He invited me to take impromptu photographs behind the stage during performance, I wasn’t planning on doing that and that was incredible as well. Those moments I find really interesting because you get to see the connection between the ensemble cast, because for those things to work, those plays, those dancers, those performances, there has to be a certain chemistry.

Mother and Sister
Sussex, 1995 © Mary McCartney Courtesy of Château La Coste

EJ: There are lots of personal moments of affection of your own in the exhibition as your family feature quite frequently, how do you feel those photographs contribute to the narrative of the show? 
MM: It’s interesting because I’m always collecting photographs, I take them and archive them. So when I was invited to do the show at Château La Coste, I knew it could be a study like Twelfth Night or Paris Nude but I thought this felt like the right time to do an archive show. A lot of them haven’t been seen, but I knew I’d been collecting them for an exhibition so I began going through it to see what theme came out to me. In the past when I originally became a photographer, I always shied away from showing anything personal or family-related because I felt like I needed to do it completely on my own two feet, and it’s private. When I did the Mother Daughter exhibition at the Gagosian in 2015, it was a combination of my work and my mum’s photography. She encouraged me and it felt like this was the perfect moment to let go of those inhibitions. They’re not on show for the sake of them being family, the pictures really have that feeling of emotion and affection and stand alone as images I want to make into a piece and put on a wall. Family Circle [a 1999 image of Paul McCartney asleep with his grandson Arthur] does that because it could be anybody and I would still want to show that piece. It’s a grandfather and a grandchild completely asleep, completely comfortable – it’s just complete safety. That, to me, is very special. Mother Sister is also a moment I think will connect with a lot of people because it’s a mother and a child, it’s got real love and affection. It’s quite poignant, there is a sadness to it but there is also a physicality to it from the way my mum is holding Stella and you can see the veins in her hands. All those things are really meaningful, for that reason I felt like I should stop shutting them away and actually share them.

EJ: As you very rightly put it, whether it was your family or not, they still completely encompass the meaning of the exhibition. Real Close and Snog are such brilliant depictions of real-life intimacy, could you give us a little more context to those?
MM: I love them. [laughs] I think because the space is one room, there are two sides of what was coming out to me, one is more emotional while the other is more physical and a bit sexy. I really love Snog because it’s like a teenage moment, it’s that real I’m gonna eat your face off kind of snog. It’s just in the moment, I love it for that. It’s not overthinking things. Real Close is similar, he’s put his hand up the back of the top and they’re physically almost riding each other. That one was actually of the Royal Ballet dancers when we went to a party after they’d finished performing and it shows their closeness, but also the physicality. It’s quite sexy, which I love, but it also shows trust, you can tell that there’s a bond between those two. The fact you can’t see their faces then allows the viewer to sort of put their own take on it as well.

Mum’s Side of The Bed
Sussex, 1996 © Mary
McCartney Courtesy of Château La Coste

“When I go to a performance, I become fascinated with wondering who that person is. How did they get to be in this point in their life, and so brilliant at what they do?”

Gently Holding Frog
Scotland, 1995 © Mary McCartney Courtesy of Château La Coste

EJ: The majority of the images on display have been shot on film, what is it that draws you to this medium as opposed to digital?
MM: To me it has more physicality to it, it feels more complete, it’s got grain to it and a different depth of field. I do use digital, I’m an ambassador for Leica so I do shoot on digital cameras as well, and they’re particularly good because I like to shoot a lot in available light. If it’s low light then digital is much easier. But when I’m doing what I would call more personal projects, I would usually have my film camera on me. It’s just me, the camera and film so I’m not looking at the back of the camera to see what I’m getting. I’m very much connected to what I’m taking a picture of rather than checking the picture.

EJ: Finally, is there anyone else left on your list that you would like to photograph?
MM: There are still millions of people and situations, I love being invited into people’s personal space for studies. There are lots of people but the one that always makes me smile would be Dolly Parton – I love her. There are so many brilliant people I would want to do but for some reason, whenever I’m asked that question the only name that pops into my head is Dolly, which is ridiculous [laughs]. She’s so interesting to me, she’s come from the Blue Mountains and now she is Dolly and I want to know what it’s like behind the scenes of being Dolly. I don’t think she’d ever let you in to do that but that would be really interesting to me as an observer.

Mary McCartney: Moment of Affection will run at Château La Coste in Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, France from June 22nd – 4th September 2022.


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