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Linda McCartney’s Polaroids: Instagram before it was cool

Linda McCartney’s Polaroids: Instagram before it was cool

A new collection celebrates a master of candid photography

A new collection celebrates a master of candid photography

Ethan Croft | October 23rd 2019

Linda McCartney was as candid a photographer as they come. She was known for pulling out her camera mid-conversation and snapping the face of her companion, an awkward habit that produced wonderful results. One of her best-known snaps captured Jimi Hendrix yawning backstage after a gig, one of the few photographs that didn’t show the energetic musician shredding his guitar and balling into a microphone. As Paul McCartney put it in a recent interview with the Irish Times: “He felt confident enough to yawn, she felt confident enough to take a picture of him yawning.”

Two decades after her death “Linda McCartney: The Polaroid Diaries” gives us an excuse once again to see the world through her eyes. Although she was an established photographer – working as a photojournalist before her marriage to Paul in 1969 – Linda took pride in capturing quotidian beauty rather than crafting it with the lens. She rarely used a light metre and never had a personal studio despite the means to acquire the tools that many photographers deem essential to their craft. The Polaroid, an intuitive way of taking pictures with instant results, suited her approach as a photographer with a great eye but little technical expertise. This mirrors the musical career of her husband, Paul, who despite possessing one of the greatest ears in history cannot read sheet music.

“Candids” are back in vogue, falsified by many for the sake of a cool social media profile. But when Linda started out in the 1960s there was something irreverent about her approach; this was Instagram “before it was cool”. Besides, Linda’s style of shooting was inextricably linked to her impulsive nature. She could never have been a jobbing photographer at weddings and the like. Her photography was not a vocational skill that could be exploited for the mundane purposes that “a career” implies, like paying rent. It was not a way to make a living, but a way of living. Her insatiable need to take pictures is evident by the hundreds of home snaps Linda left behind in bottom draws and shoeboxes after her death. The family waded through these in order to produce this new collection. 

Impulse was the key to her style but it was also the linchpin of her success. In her early years as a photographer from around 1966-1969, despite a lack of expertise, she responded to all opportunities in the affirmative. While working as a “temporary secretary” at a magazine, impulse led her to sneak onto the Rolling Stones’ yacht on the Hudson river, New York, where she took her first published photographs. When Town & Country magazine needed someone to photograph the Beatles, it was Linda who immediately volunteered. This simple philosophy of saying “yes” brought great rewards; in 1968 she became the first woman to photograph a Rolling Stone magazine cover. Though Linda was modest, those around her recognised her talent. Annie Leibovitz, celebrity portrait photographer, became an admirer and friend, writing the foreword for a posthumous collection of her work. Leibovitz reflected: “The lines between life and work are blurred. Linda McCartney’s life became one with her photography.”

Linda honed her craft in Sixties bohemia, but as the decade came to a close, she retreated to the remote Mull of Kintyre in Scotland with her family. By this time she could wield her Polaroid camera with familiar ease. She created beautiful photographs, with or without celebrity subjects, turning her eye to simple scenes of Highland-walking and family parties. Not a yawn in sight. 

Paul sketching flowers in Jamaica (1980s)

Though her husband was a talented musician, Linda felt she had to make an effort to broaden his artistic interests. John Lennon released two books of prose and illustration in the Sixties, but Paul showed little aptitude for the visual arts. His wife brought some of her fine art training to the family home and encouraged drawing and painting. Linda’s love of art influenced some of Paul’s famous compositions such as “Drink to Me”, a 1973 eulogy to Pablo Picasso. 

Paul on the phone in Sussex, England (1980s) 

Linda was a great fan of the spontaneous portrait. In this photo taken some time in the 1980s she catches Paul by surprise as he talks on the phone wearing a gaudy yellow dressing gown and a silly hat. It is reassuring to learn that his fashion sense kept some of its eccentricity in the years following Sgt. Pepper, when the Beatles paraded around in psychedelic army costumes.

Linda with a dog in Montserrat (1970s)

Pictured relaxing with one of the many family pooches, this photograph shows one of Linda’s innovations that caught on – the pet selfie. An animal lover since childhood, she became a vegetarian in the early 1970s and soon convinced the family to follow a meat-free diet. With the launch of Linda McCartney Foods in 1991, Linda’s animal rights activism began to outshine her photography career. She even appeared in an episode of “the Simpsons”, offering support and encouragement to fellow vegetarian Lisa Simpson.

Ringo Starr and Paul in Los Angeles (1970s)

Though Paul and John Lennon’s friendship soured, the other Beatles were able to keep their friendships alive. Here Ringo Starr shares whisky and a cigarette with Paul and, judging by their jovial expressions, quite a funny joke. Meanwhile in the early 1970s, John Lennon and George Harrison remained close, working on each other’s albums. George Harrison even played slide guitar on John Lennon’s song “How do you sleep?”, a five minute musical attack on Paul’s life and work including the choice lines: “the sound you make is muzak to my ears” and “the only thing you done was Yesterday”.

Paul on the drums in Campbeltown, Scotland (1970s)

The joke that “Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles” was long thought to be an example of John’s cruel wit, until research in 2018 showed the line was actually coined by comedian Jasper Carrott. Nevertheless the quip caught on because it contains a kernel of truth – Paul is an accomplished drummer to match Ringo Starr, as well as a singer, bassist, pianist, guitarist, trumpeter, mandolinist and even banjo player. His multi-instrumentalist talents made Paul a harsh judge of talent in the Beatles’ early days when he sacked Pete Best as drummer because of his weak rhythm. He even relieved Ringo of his drumsticks on some famous Beatles tracks, playing himself on “Back in the USSR”, “Dear Prudence” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko”.

Linda McCartney: The Polaroid Diaries (Taschen) is out now