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Review: Linda McCartney Retrospective at the Walker *****

When you hear the name Linda McCartney what immediately springs to mind? Wife of a Beatle? Blonde cockatoo hair bobbing behind a keyboard in 70s group Wings? Dedicated face of a vegetarian food empire?

McCartney was all those things of course.

But first and foremost, she was a photographer – and as this expansive and visually compelling retrospective at the Walker Art Gallery shows, a natural storyteller and one with an eye for engaging with and often getting beneath the surface of her subject.

A previous iteration was premiered at the Kelvingrove in Glasgow last year, but this new Liverpool show delves in to McCartney’s vast archives to add an extra layer of local interest with the addition of images from the 1960s and 70s captured during family visits to the city and Paul’s dad Jim in Wirral.

Rather like the superb Don McCullin exhibition, due to open at Tate Liverpool later this year, there’s an embarrassment of riches here and certainly enough to keep visitors interested for the best part of a morning, or as long as they can tolerate breathing through a mask at least.

Visually the overall exhibition has great clarity and simplicity, the Walker’s airy temporary galleries tinted in monochrome tones with the odd splash of colour, reflecting the work on display.

Linda McCartney Retrospective. All photos by Gareth Jones

While there’s a vaguely chronological order, in general the exhibition is laid out in thematic fashion.

“My photography is me,” McCartney said of her work.

So it’s apt she should be the subject of an opening section of images, looking evenly into the lens in a series of shots taken both by other people (no anonymous snappers here – we’re talking Eric Clapton, Graham Nash and Jim Morrison as well as husband Paul) and reflective self-portraits. Literally reflective as McCartney was keen on the photographic device of shooting into mirrors.

Famous faces populate the first half of the exhibition; Hendrix, Morrison, Simon and Garfunkel, Zappa, Aretha. The Stones in New York in 1966, a poignantly cheery Janis Joplin raising a bottle to the camera, Ginger Baker (“an amiable pirate”) in unusually pensive stillness, The Yardbirds watching an old lady, oblivious, walk past them as they loiter outside London’s famous Baghdad House café.


And, of course, Paul whose ever presence acts as a thread through the exhibition, weaving in and out of shots from the Beatles to the bathroom of his Cavendish Avenue house to Birkenhead bus station, Scotland to swimming pools (where McCartney has perfectly captured his airborne ‘bigger splash’), and the seat of his Mini to Mathew Street.

Read an interview with curator Ann Bukantas

So far, so starry. But in fact the real fascination lies within the photos which don’t feature famous subjects; a wall of framed Polaroids capturing snatched family moments in blurry Technicolor, an affectionate study of Paul’s Uncle Harry and Auntie Jin, the beautifully-framed stillness of a girl in a Copenhagen café that is an enviable masterclass in composition.

Photographs of Scotland

The show has scale and breadth of subject matter then, but also, perhaps more surprisingly, scale and breadth in photographic practice. McCartney’s interest in photography went beyond the image in her lens, embracing not just who she photographed but how.

She studied and experimented with different early photographic techniques, and the retrospective includes gauzy and ethereal platinum prints, sun prints and C-type contact sheets mounted on aluminium among hundreds of images on show.

Pioneering Sixties snapper (she was the first to have a photo on the cover of Rolling Stone), rock wife, mother, musician, animal activist, photographer…. “my photography is me” is, it turns out, a very fitting summation of this impressive show.

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