We spoke to the photographer about her exhibition Can We Have a Moment? and her boundless fascination with the storytelling potential of the camera
Mary McCartney is a prolific image-maker. “I always have a camera, whether it’s my phone, a little Leica I carry around, or a bigger, more professional camera. It’s just about keeping your eyes open as you’re wandering and daydreaming,” she tells Dazed in a conversation over Zoom. Besides the many high-profile campaigns and commissions she’s worked on over the course of her career, the photographer, filmmaker, food writer and meat-free activist is inspired, as much as anything, by everyday encounters. “Photographers have a curious eye,” she explains, “they’re always looking for these stories and moments.”
McCartney is speaking to us from her studio in London, a city she finds endlessly inspiring. Contemplating the kinds of scenes or moments that compel her to reach for her ever-present camera, she says: “In my everyday life, it’s being in London... just being able to wander around. I might take a different road or alleyway from my usual routes so that I see things from different perspectives.” Part flaneur, part voyeur, McCartney loves to “get lost” in the city’s vast parks and possesses a unique eye for the poignancy, tenderness and charged meanings belying the apparent normalcy of day-to-day life… discarded party balloons, an abandoned bed, two pairs of feet edging closer to each other beneath a table.
Her new exhibition, Can we have a moment? at Sotheby’s, gathers together photographs taken from her expansive archive. The show, which spans three decades of work, is comprised entirely of pictures taken in the UK and encompasses everything from her entrancing studies of Royal Ballet dancers to a striking portrait of Tracey Emin as Frida Kahlo, as well as more incidental shots taken on her travels. Chosen from her prodigious archive of contact sheets and brought together in this space, they appear like a constellation of unfolding narratives, suggestive of endless speculative configurations of stories.
While she has an unusual antenna for extraordinary moments of the everyday, McCartney’s own life is arguably more extraordinary than most. It hardly needs mentioning that she descends from one of the most renowned creative dynasties in Britain. While belonging to the same family as a Beatle and the founder of a fashion empire, her mother, Linda, was of course also an acclaimed photographer. The photograph “Mum’s Side Of The Bed” (1996) is a moving study of presence and loss, tracing the contours of her late mother’s absence from the abandoned bed. “I love the physicality and intimacy of a bed people have slept in,” McCartney tells us. “ It’s almost like a landscape. And there’s a flower embroidered on her pillowcase so, for instance, maybe I’ll put [a photograph] of some English roses next to it in the show.”
The exhibition is composed of photographs arranged in groups, arranged to provoke new and intriguing connections. “They’re not a linear hang, but clusters of images,” she says. It’s not only the space between the pictures that generate additional meanings, her work is permeated by a sense of ambiguity, creating gaps that invite the viewer to fill with their own speculations. “I love photographing people but make the portraits more anonymous. There’s a picture of somebody bending over and lacing their shoes, but you don’t see her face. Or the dancer in blue by the side of the stage, she’s in this position where it shows so much about her but, again, you don’t see her face. It leaves us to fill in the gap. I almost love photographs more than film because a lot of the story is left in the individual’s head.”
A key image of the exhibition is McCartney’s uncanny portrait of Tracey Emin dressed as Frida Kahlo. “When I contacted Tracey and asked her to do this portrait sitting we hadn’t met but we have this connection with beds… Tracey’s famous piece ‘My Bed’  and my photograph ‘Mum’s Side of the Bed’ along with other work I’ve done very much on the same theme,” McCartney recalls. “When I messaged her, she was like, ‘I have an affinity with Frida Kahlo as well.’ I think it's the vulnerability but also the strength in her work… there’s something about how gutsy and authentic she was. And I think now history is only just catching up with her now we’re all being more open with our emotions, which I feel like she did when it was still taboo. And I think Tracey really wears her heart on her sleeve too, so it comes together well.”
Not having met Emin beforehand, McCartney was speculating on the unknown quantity of their collaboration. It may have been a planned shoot but, like so many of McCartney’s most enduring images, it still possesses the quality of a chance encounter. “You can plan things out, but it’s really just about the moment and something happening,” she reflects. “That’s the unexpected thing that makes photographs feel magical.”
Can we have a moment? by Mary McCartney is running at Sotheby’s until 2 April 2023 but will remain online until June 9 2023.
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