“The first photos I took were of school friends when I was a teenager; us messing around in the 6th form classroom and on nights out. I love them, as looking back they bring back such vivid memories,” says Mary McCartney of her early encounters with the camera.
For someone who has spoken of growing up in a “fishbowl”, the subject of an inescapable gaze, photography has a cathartic power, and it has given her the opportunity to look out at the world, to observe others rather than be observed.
Her choice of subjects has often reflected this; women who are used to be looked at, in different contexts. There is a 2012 series on Geisha and a series on Marilyn Monroe impersonators; her acclaimed work with Royal Ballet dancers, Off Pointe; the work she did with close friend Kate Moss, and most recently, her up-close, intimate observations over twenty-four hours with the stand-up comedian, Phyllis Wang, at home in her Paris apartment. The photographs were published as a book, Paris Nude, by Heni last month.
“I am drawn to subjects where I feel I can reveal or uncover a different viewpoint, so that the viewer will be drawn into the story with genuine interest,” McCartney tells me. “For instance finding Royal Ballet dancers who were completely trusting and allowed me into their world so that I could observe them from waking up in the morning all the way to bathing at night.”
With Paris Nude, this mutual trust was equally important. “Phyllis invited me into her home, and it was a therapeutic experience for both of us, as I observed her.” In their candid, diaristic texts that open the book, both Wang and McCartney speak of their initial awkwardness during the all-analogue shoot, but how they overcame it together, McCartney winding up spending the night on Wang’s sofa.
McCartney had initially approached Wang, who is the partner of a friend, to pose for an art portfolio she had been commissioned to work on for a jewellery company, drawn to her unique look but just as much to her mind. “Even though she is a stand-up comedian, not a model, Phyllis came to mind, as she has an eye-catching silhouette and lovely short, black bob haircut, that reminded me of a 1920s statuette,” McCartney explains, her affection for Wang clear. “I sent her a text saying I had a project in mind and would she call me to discuss, signing off my message, “Mary xxx”. From this, she thought I wanted to do a triple X rated nude story!” She describes how she saw Wang as someone who thought a lot, and in Paris Nude there are plenty of pensive moments.
The commonality between all of these female subjects is their position as women who perform femininity in public. The perspective McCartney gives us is not the public persona, but something tender, sensitive and honest, revealing the physical and psychological behind the scenes, the preparation that goes into what is apparently effortless performance. The feeling of closeness, and fun, that her work also evokes seems rooted in the atmosphere of those first pictures McCartney shot with her friends at school.
“Photography gives me the opportunity to explore, observe, collaborate and meet new people and delve into their lives. For me, one moment caught in a photograph opens up a whole world of narrative and imagination. The challenge is to choose on an image and hang it as an art piece and then look, observe, let your mind wander, and never get bored.”
‘It is essential for me to gain the trust of my sitters, that way we can work together to get something personal, interesting and unexpected. If I sense my subject is nervous or second-guessing me, then my role is to encourage and challenge them to give in to me and be themselves.” McCartney says of her process. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McCartney’# other great passion is food; as well as being a published cookbook writer and advocate of vegetarianism, continuing her late mother’s legacy, she often enjoys cooking for others. Recently she visited the painter Rose Wylie at her studio and spoke of how they connected over a cake she made. Food, like photography, goes beyond boundaries to bring people together.
There is one project, however – started pre-Instagram, in 2007, but finding its place now there – that is a departure from this approach, although it is just as intimate, enquiring and personal. #someone is an ongoing project capturing momentary encounters with strangers, people with whom McCartney shares a fleeting encounter or energy. “#someone is a spontaneous project that I photograph on my phone and then reveal on my Instagram account.” She explains. “All people that I come across in day to day life, people that catch my eye and interest. It started one morning in a park in London, when I walked past a woman and the David Bowie lyrics “with her long blonde hair and eyes of blue”, I took a photograph of her in this moment and uploaded it to Instagram with #someone. It’s fresh, real and unprompted.”