Mary McCartney looks back: ‘My childhood gave me a curiosity for the behind-the-scenes moments’
Born in London in 1969, Mary McCartney is a photographer, film-maker, presenter and vegetarian cookbook author. The eldest daughter of musician Paul McCartney and photographer Linda McCartney, Mary’s childhood was spent on the road with Wings and in studios such as Abbey Road, about which she made a documentary, If These Walls Could Sing, in 2022. She lives in London with her film-maker husband, Simon Aboud, and has four sons. Mary has curated Sea Views, an online exhibition for the luxury cruise line Cunard, featuring archive imagery and submissions from the public.
This was taken in Nashville. I’m wearing a lanyard as I had been commissioned by the Country Music Awards to take portraits of all the winners and nominees like Loretta Lynn, Kid Rock, Shooter Jennings and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Wandering around the hotel on my way to the event I saw this row of mirrors: I’m attracted to shiny things and loved the repeat image of myself so I took the photo. It was a spontaneous moment and I really liked the camera being in it, too – something you wouldn’t get with a selfie today.
The trip to Nashville felt like stepping into a different world. Thirty five is an interesting age, it’s neither young nor old, and at this stage of my life I was learning so much about myself. I was a late bloomer, and remember feeling as if my confidence was really starting to build. I loved to be invited into new places; to step into the unknown. So when I was invited to a party at a mansion after the awards I lapped it up! It was incredibly exciting, I was busy observing all the guests when someone opened a little door and all this gun smoke came billowing out. They had a two-lane shooting range off their kitchen! It blew my mind.
Wandering and exploring has always been important to me. When this picture was taken I had two kids, but I was also starting to pursue these adventures. I was loving my career, developing my portfolio. Getting the call to do the Nashville job came out of the blue, and my decision to accept it really felt as if I was stepping out of my comfort zone, immersing myself in a new culture. Photography gave me a shortcut to forming a relationship with these unfamiliar people.
Having grown up on tour, I was comfortable around musicians. My childhood gave me a curiosity for the behind-the-scenes moments: what happens before the main event. I love to see the practice that people go through to become the best in their field. It’s something I observed from my dad. He has always been so supportive of my career and is the first person I show around an exhibition. He’s always genuinely interested. Often I’ll show him a selection of images and ask his opinion.
My mother’s photographs also had a huge influence on me. We definitely have a similar shooting style, black and white images particularly – there’s a timelessness to them. In this photo I like that you can’t tell my age, the colour of my clothes – a denim skirt and a floral Laura Ashley shirt, which I wore because it was so hot in Nashville.
Beyond her shooting style, I also inherited her temperament: Mum made people feel at ease and that’s how I approach things, too. I would never go in and impose myself. I’d much rather assess the situation and get to know the subject better, gauge what will make them feel comfortable and then challenge it.
That type of sensitivity comes from my teen years too. I was an awkward adolescent and so, as an adult, I found it easy to empathise with someone else’s feelings of being uncomfortable or stressed. While I had a few really close friends as a teen, my family moved around a lot so it was not easy to sustain a relationship. I also didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. The hormones didn’t help with the awkwardness, either. I shook it all off when I left school, the hormones calmed down and my self-belief began to grow. When I found photography in my 20s it made me happy and excited, and through doing this I’ve grown to know myself more.
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At the start of my career, taking photos was also just a way of getting out the door as I could easily hide at home all day. Back then I could sometimes talk myself out of projects as I was feeling shy and thinking: “I’ll just stay here.” After a while, I realised I should just say yes to opportunities. Photography made me engaged with the world, and these days so much of my ambition comes from looking for moments of intimacy and connecting to people. I’m not an introvert, I’m a people person and really like that buzz when you have good chemistry with someone. Having that moment with someone is incomparable. When I feed someone and it works, I get a similar buzz.
I grew up in a vegetarian household – we were always talking about food and I’d watch Mum busy making incredible meals in the kitchen. About the time this picture was taken – before she passed away – I distinctly recall that I’d be cooking a recipe at home, and if something didn’t taste right I’d be able to call her to find out where I went wrong. If I made a stew I could ring her and say: “Mum, it doesn’t taste as good as yours!” She would reply: “Oh, did you add celery in? Cabbage?” Everything she suggested would elevate the flavour. When she passed away I realised how important that exchange was. It’s made me more determined to take pictures and to keep a record of all of her recipes. Since then I’ve had this passion for sharing them – it’s this way of revisiting amazing memories. You eat a meal from your childhood and it takes you back in time. Same with looking at a photograph. When I see Mum’s photos of us together, when I cook and taste her recipes, it’s a connection to her.
Losing my mum has been the biggest challenge of my life. The grief was traumatic. But eventually I realised: “I love this person so much and this is why I feel grief.” It will always be there but Mum was such a strong individual. I can smile and think about what she would have said or done, and I have the rest of my family so we can reminisce about what a brilliant woman she was. I always try to look on the bright side.
Taking a self-portrait 20 years later was daunting, but I’m just as excited about my photography as I was then and I certainly feel more experienced. Back then I had not exhibited much, I hadn’t reflected on my images properly. These days I know my photos are telling me something about myself: if I have taken lots of images of beds, those pictures are telling me that I am interested in beds, and I want to find out why. If I am taking a photo in the mirror, it’s because I want to show the whole person and the camera. This self-portrait was taken when I was turning into the person I am now and I am so glad that I captured the moment.