Photographer Mary McCartney is used to shooting big names, not least her father, Paul. But for GQ’s September cover, a shoot under Covid conditions threw up more challenges than usual.
Mary McCartney, naturally, is no stranger to taking photographs of her father. The photographer grew up shooting him, and her mother, Linda, was a photographer too, among other things, and taught a young Mary much of what she knows now. And so, when the commission to shoot her father for this month’s cover came through, McCartney immediately began asking all the pertinent questions: where would she shoot him, in what clothes, with what props and when?
Many of these questions were answered de facto as the coronavirus lockdown came into force across the UK, leading to both McCartneys spending weeks together under one roof in the family home in East Sussex, and that, as McCartney said, gave her an unusual opportunity to capture her dad as she knew him at home when she was a child. She broke down her September cover shoot, picture by picture.
Mary McCartney: “The good thing about this kind of portfolio is you have the opportunity, rather than doing one portrait, to do several to get a narrative. I wanted the narrative to be Dad’s outdoor style, and also [a] musical [narrative], so we pulled out a couple of key instruments and pulled out the Land Rover, which is called ‘Helen Wheels’. Helen Wheels was the base, and we were driving around in her, and then going back to the house, ‘Waterfall’. When we moved out of London, that’s the house that we lived in, so I was exploring elements from my childhood, taking Dad back in time.
“The day was beautiful, luckily. We wanted it to be outdoors and Dad is very much a nature boy. We’d been in lockdown together, up until then, living back at home together. It was like being a kid, but really it was unique and interesting to be able to spend that much time back at home. Each evening, I’d cook a meal and then we could all sit down and eat together and spend a lot more time chatting. The background was such a difficult situation – all this turmoil – but the one good thing that came out of it, for us, was having this extra time together. He would write something and I’d cook. We’d have a drink before dinner and then he’d play a song. That’s very much how it was growing up. I’m lucky that we have a good relationship. It’s something to be thankful for.
“[Helen Wheels is] the old Land Rover which we used to drive up to Scotland in when we were kids. To me, that’s part of my childhood, so I was like, ‘Let’s get that out.’ It’s from the early 1970s; those kind of cars are made to last. It’s not necessarily the most comfortable thing to drive around in – it’s quite bumpy – but I love it.
“The thing of being a lockdown is that we weren’t at some location in a studio – we were in a real space. I think there’s a calmness about him because of that. And also a bit of rock’n’roll, because that picture with the white Telecaster is the first time he’s been photographed with that. I was thinking, ‘What would be good [that] people haven’t seen? He’s been photographed a lot over the years, so that will be interesting for the musos.’ It’s a present that he was given by Nancy, his wife. I think he told her about this guitar that he really liked and then she found it for him, because it’s always hard to find something to give him as a present. And he’d been recording with it that week – he’s been using it a lot more in the last few months.
“The round, stained-glass piece in the background is one of my mum’s photographs, a collaboration that she did with a really good friend of hers and my dad called Brian Clark, who’s an artist. So that was also another hint, a family moment.
“We went for a little drive in the Land Rover. That’s down in the little country lanes around here. I love those long country lanes where you have overhanging trees and really dappled light. It’s a beautiful setting and really great light.
“With my mum, I grew up watching her taking photographs, but with your parents, you just go, ‘Those are my parents.’ Then you get to a certain age and, if you’re lucky, you have the opportunity to talk to them. I took my mum out for lunch when I became a photographer and was like, ‘Right. I need to talk to you about pictures you took of Hendrix.’ And suddenly, seeing her taking pictures with such ease and knowing how much more complicated it is to make something look that good and that easy? That’s part of what I love about photography – the images I like are the ones that look the most relaxed, but a lot of skill goes into making them look that that relaxed.
“I love that sunset and the beautiful hand-tapestried denim jacket. That was the very end of the shoot. I knew, vaguely, [where we planned to shoot], but a lot of it was left to the day. The weather, the light and the chemistry… Unexpected moments like that one, where he’s got his [hands] up and the sun’s setting? That’s one you could never plan, because you wouldn’t know the weather would be so amazing. I didn’t know the sun would set on that field.
“That kind of stuff is the extra, beautiful, exciting thing that makes me love being a photographer. The things that you don’t plan are always things that give you that extra buzz.”