'Her decision was that she was never going to be apart from him, and I think that was the smartest and most amazing choice.'
Linda once said that if she hadn't married Paul, she would have been a professional photographer and would have been quite satisfied with that as her life's work - as long as she could have a horse and did not have to live in the city. As it turned out for her, Linda did indeed get her horse(s) and her house(s) in the country, but she also married an eligible and famous man and stayed with him for the rest of her life; raised four children; wrote three bestselling vegetarian cookbooks; became the world's most celebrated animal-rights activist; created a line of food products that was enormously visible and lucrative; performed onstage in front of a cumulative audience of about ten million people; and... well, you'll have to read the book to find out all the things she was and did.
With all that, her obituary in the New York Times of 20 April 1998, was headlined, 'LINDA MCCARTNEY, PHOTOGRAPHER OF ROCK STARS, DIES AT 56'. It was at the top of the page, and five columns wide out of six. Still representing the mind-set of the public when it came to Linda, the headline was, I thought, struggling to be correct, but patronising and inaccurate. (In all fairness to the august Times, there was a subheading that read, 'An animal-rights activist, vegetarian entrepreneur and wife of a Beatle'.) If Linda were to be remembered as a photographer, then her achievement certainly went beyond doing pictures of 'rock stars'; but it is still remarkable that she was identified as a photographer at all, because that is not exactly what came to mind when one thought of Linda, the celebrity. Or, she was a well-known photographer, went the prevailing opinion, until she became Mrs Paul, and became truly famous being his wife. Always, there was the implication that her best work was done in her 'freewheeling' days in the late 60s (as in 'Photographer of Rock Stars') and that her portraits intimately captured the spirit of that era; after her marriage, well, she got some good pictures of the Beatles, some really good ones of Paul, and then went on to other things, which were not quite as fabulous as those shots of Janis, Brian, Jimi, Jackson, Pete and so on.
It is not astonishing that her early portraits have overshadowed her subsequent achievement - her shots were beautiful portraits of fabulous people and she was certainly in the right places with her camera, where few got to go and fewer still took pictures, let alone memorable ones. Her early talent jumped off the contact sheets like a genie released from a bottle. What's more, those pictures are looking better all the time, and the public's appetite for them seems to be growing as well.
I drove with Linda Stein to Greenwich, Connecticut, in March 1999, to the opening of a show at the Bruce Museum called 'Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era', an exhibition due to tour American museums until August 2001. Of course, the local press was rampant with speculation about the possibility of Paul being there, but wisely (as ever) he didn't go; instead he sent a modest bouquet of flowers which was prominently displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. (He and Linda rarely went to the openings of the many shows of her work in the UK; they knew all eyes would be on them, so what was on the walls would get much less attention than the people standing in the middle of the room.) It was a beautifully mounted show, the place was packed, vegetarian hors d'oeuvres were served along with top-shelf spirits, and the gift shop was well stocked with Linda's books, her posthumous album and even Beatles memorabilia (there's no getting away from it, is there?) consigned to the museum by local collectors.
Greenwich, about thirty miles from New York, is one of that city's richest suburbs by far; the event we attended was a preview for sponsors and supporters of the museum, which occupies a large and magnificent building on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound and is a beloved institution in the town. Which is to say, the crowd that night was made up of the elite of the elite; chairmen of the boards of the world's great financial institutions and their wives were there in abundance. Collectors and connoisseurs themselves, impeccably dressed and extremely sophisticated, hardly a bunch of rockers, the preview-goers were ooh-ing and ah-ing like six-year-olds at Gorilla Jungle theme park.
The local reviews were joyously positive, quoting many of the guests at the reception. Jane Chase of Greenwich said, 'I'm really amazed at how talented she was and it makes me sad that she isn't around to give us those gifts any more.' There was the inevitable and terribly clever ten-year-old who commented, 'In most of these pictures, I don't know who they are. But I like the fact that she does a lot of pictures in black and white.' 'Stunningly compelling' was the first line of 'local experts review exhibit favorably' in Greenwich Time, but it was a quote from a curator at the museum. Photographer Jeff Wignall told the writer, 'It was Linda Eastman who took most of the pictures before she met Paul McCartney. In reality, she was a superb photographer.' The catalogue of the exhibition claimed that Linda had 'earned her place among the great photographers of the 20th century'. Wow.
Current and subsequent assessments of Linda's work toyed with the word 'great'; although some were reluctant to grant that accolade, others did. It's telling, though, that among the more reluctant was Reuel Gordon, editor of the British Journal of Photography, who wrote in the Independent, just after Linda's death, about her 'haphazard approach to photography . . . [her lack of] affinity with the mechanics of the medium and scant knowledge of films, shutter speeds and so on', resulting in a lack of 'consistency that separates the good photographers from the truly great ones'. One begs to differ; Linda knew a great deal about film, processing, chemistry, light and composition, and studied and worked on these areas with acknowledged experts. Mr Gordon may not find her achievement great - that is his opinion - but she had learned her craft quite meticulously. (And I cannot comprehend what 'consistency' the critic is referring to; Linda, like all photographers, exhibited and published the images she wanted to, and, like all photographers, kept the rest in a box, although she emphatically did not take dozens of shots to get one good one. The pictures she showed demonstrated a fine grasp of light, processing and composition, or they never would have been hung in galleries and museums. I sniff here the implication that she was perhaps spoiled and indulged because of who she was - it's the same old story. The article ends: 'Not one of the greats, perhaps, but certainly one capable of producing striking and memorable images.' How grudgingly generous.
More interesting to me than the patronising quibbling of Mr Gordon is the opinion of Lee Fleming in the Washington Post, who wrote about Linda's portraits in 1993: 'in a contest between work like that of Annie Leibovitz, which manipulates and plays on public perception of her subjects, and McCartney's low-key revelations, the latter's pictures win hands down . .. [her] images reveal something of the source, not just the surface, of her subjects' creativity'.
Bonnie Benrubi, whose New York gallery handles Linda's pictures (and work by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Alfred Steiglitz as well), was working closely with Linda on a show titled 'Wide Open' that went on view just months after her death. Benrubi does not hesitate to call Linda's work 'brilliant'. She praises 'the composition, the vision, the kind of clarity and freshness, the perfection in printing, the overall accomplishment of it'. Benrubi had known the 60s pictures, but then became familiar with the sun prints (experiments, almost abstract, with light and chemical processing), the still lifes, the horses, landscapes and the pictures of decidedly non-famous people. Her last conversation with Linda, about the forthcoming show, took place three days before Linda died: 'We talked about the exhibit; I had no idea how sick she was.'
She continues: 'I miss her a lot. I think she was a great person, warm and trusting, not bothered by silly, small things. She never seemed to be distracted when she focused on something and, more impressive, she was able to grow, she really grew and she never stopped growing. Linda would have been so proud of that show.'
And in a reveiw in the New York Times, Margaret Loke wrote that Linda 'never seemed to feel fame's constraining effects on her life or her photography ... Ms. McCartney brought an engaged, intuitive and minimalist eye to her black-and-white landscapes and still lifes of the 1980's and 90's . . . Her photography could be disarmingly earthy, but her eye was definitely precise.' Ms Loke found Linda's work 'paradoxically, intensely private . . . the pictures of sea and sky, of trees and of clouds share a profound aloneness', and called the landscapes 'quietly elegiac'.
Those quietly elegiac (and very beautiful) pictures will never be as famous or as widely beloved as Linda's celebrity portraits, and she never deluded herself that they would be. She pursued photography because she loved everything about it, and she knew as well as anyone that there were not going to be many more Hendrixes or Joplins in her life making music that she loved, inspiring her to 'get them down' at their creative heights. What's more, never needing to prove (except to herself) her viability as an artist, Linda just went on creating, and her output was immense. She had five books of photographs published, exhibitions at New York's International Center of Photography, the Museum of the City of San Francisco, the San Diego Museum of Photographic Art, and of course her galleries - Fahey-Klein in Los Angeles and Benrubi in New York. Her 'Sixties' show has been or will be at museums in ten American cities. In England there were one-woman shows of her images at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, the National Museum of Photography in Bradford and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her photographs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are on permanent display in the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Her work has been exhibited on the European continent, in South America and Australia. In 1987 she was voted '1987 US Photographer of the Year' by Women in Photography. With Brian Clarke she created stained-glass windows that were widely and extravagantly admired; for her private delight and close friends, she produced calendars and date-books and a series of scarves using images from her pictures.
'She would always send me things she was working on,' said Judy Collins. 'Beautifully cut velvet scarves, and then the ones with her photographs of leaves and flowers that she had translated into fabrics. These glorious things. She was an artist, you know, all along. This connection she had with her art was very strong. In a sense, she gets the prize for her continuity in her work; it was the real thing at the start, and then always the real thing.'
At very rare moments, Linda took a break from cloudscapes on the moors and went back to where her career as a photographer began -shooting stars. The last she ever photographed was Chrissie Hynde. Chrissie was planning the cover of her 1998 album, Viva el Amor, and called Linda's daughter Mary, now a successful photographer as well as custodian of her mother's pictorial legacy.
I wanted a militant-looking thing, fist in the air, as if we'd won the revolution, and when I talked.about it with Mary, she said, 'Well, why don't you call my Mum? I'm sure she'd like to do that.' I knew Linda hadn't been well, and I didn't want to bother her, but the next day my manager called and asked, 'Did you organize a photo shoot with Linda McCartney?' I said I hadn't. She responded, 'Well, guess what, there's one organized.' I called Linda and said, 'Hello, my personal photographer!' and she told me, 'I love this, I love your idea because it's strong, and I love strong. I've turned down so much work this year because they were things that just didn't interest me, but this does.'
So I went down to Rye, to the windmill where Paul had his recording studio and Linda had her photography studio. I was in my crappy old jeans and Linda had the camera set up, and I said, 'Is there a mirror or something?' 'Oh yeah, I think so,' she replied, and she walked me into this little lavatory that had a tiny mirror and a couple of lightbulbs next to it. Not what you're used to when shooting an album cover with a famous photographer.
While we were setting up, Paul was in the other studio recording tracks for Linda's solo album, which he seemed really eager to get on with, and she showed me her lyrics. Then in between doing the shots of me, she'd run out and get on the phone, putting the finishing touches to her last cookbook; she's going, 'No, no, no! Not parsley' - things like that. She was always working on lots of projects at once, but this time I had a sense of her needing to finish whatever she was doing just then. After the session, she told me she was going to the States for a holiday and would be back in a couple of weeks. I never saw her or talked to her again.
This was one month before she died. A few days after the shoot she sent me the contact sheets, and I marked the one I wanted and sent it back to her. And then the news came over the radio.
A week later, her photo agent called my office and said, 'There's a picture that Unda wanted hand-delivered to Chrissie,' and the next day this package was brought over. It was the picture - she had instructed her agent how to print it up, which was exactly how I wanted it, and to deliver it to me, and there it was. The only message that came with it was, 'Do whatever you want with this', and it was her last portrait. I think her way of saying goodbye to me was doing this picture for my album cover.
If Linda was reluctant to rely on words, she was not troubled by her verbal non-brilliance, because her vision was so extraordinarily developed. I, on the other hand, like to talk things to death, which led to occasional little communications battles between us. One day in 1968 we were walking past the Frick Gallery on Fifth Avenue, going to meet a musician for a photo shoot in Central Park. Linda was scrutinizing the sky and the foliage across the street, when she suddenly grabbed my arm and steered me towards the gallery's entrance. 'There's a Constable I must look at,' she said. 'The landscape with Salisbury Cathedral. I want to see something about the light on the trees.'
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'Why?' I asked. 'Why now? You've seen it a million times. We're late; what do you need to see?'
'I can't describe it,' she answered. 'We have to see it, not talk about it. We're wasting time; come on, it's free.'