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Band on the rise: Paul McCartney’s candid Sixties photographs

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition of “forgotten” pictures will be revelatory for Beatles obsessives.

By Kate Mossman

Paul McCartney says that he and the other Beatles were consistently excited by stuff: they never got bored. My favourite quote from him is featured in the film made about the Las Vegas show he did with Cirque du Soleil, Love: “I wake up some mornings and think, I was in the Beatles!” he says.

It is that attitude – I was in the Beatles! – with which his vast collection of “forgotten” pictures at the National Portrait Gallery in London should be received. A photo doesn’t need to be technically good to make it a good photo, and this is a heady sequence of historical images of the most famous band in the world – in black and white, which always helps, though there are a few crackers in the colour section too.

I don’t believe for a second that McCartney forgot he had taken these photos, which span December 1963 to February 1964, as he claims. For a start they had already been digitised. One suspects there are a lot more to come out in the remaining years of his life (he is 81). Those on show (the exhibition coincides with the gallery’s reopening after three years) cover the rapid escalation of the band’s fame, from a gig at the Odeon Cinema in Cheltenham to Miami for the Ed Sullivan show (through which they conquered America), where one of the best photos was taken: George Harrison, only 22, being handed a drink by an unseen woman in a yellow bikini. The shot was taken at golden hour – a happy accident for lighting, when the sun hit George just right – and the saturated colour vibrates out of the headless woman’s bra and pants.

In fact, the most common subject for McCartney’s pictures, apart from his bandmates, is “unknown woman”: here is one biting her thumb, another gazing into the distance; another, with her own camera, looking like Juliette Greco and sitting on a desk while three fabs gaze up at her. One unknown woman is just a pair of crossed legs in nylons, a wool coat and black leather gloves. Slipping into stockings, stepping into shoes, dipping in the pocket of her raincoat. It’s all so Sixties. And there is lots of experimentation with mirrors, the easiest form of self-portrait.

[See also: The Menace of Beatlism]

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Photo, 1963-1964 Paul McCartney

The show begins with a self-portrait of McCartney himself, out of focus, in a mirror, with a fag, in Paris, 1964. Many of his photos, taken on a Pentax 35-millimetre single-lens reflex camera, are exactly the kind of thing that every twenty-something takes on their first big trips abroad: the New York taxi flashing down Fifth Avenue; the gun belt of a US cop; the Arc de Triomphe taken from inside the car with the rear-view mirror, or the driver’s head, in the way. Here is a relaxed shot of John in the back of the car in the glasses of which he was so ashamed; of George asleep. There are many pictures of Ringo looking a bit lost and concerned. McCartney’s candid photos remind you how much gurning and tomfoolery the Beatles did in front of the camera, how much Lennon hammed it up. Their official photos in this era were ridiculous: they were often asked to pose with their heads on top of each other like a totem pole because it was a good format for a single column in the newspapers.

There is very little context for the shots because it was 60 years ago and McCartney says he can’t remember – but while they don’t reveal much that’s new about the Beatles, their very existence is remarkable for fans. Photos of rock bands in the pre-digital, pre-selfie era are finite: the superfan knows every single image, develops associations with the expressions on the faces, knowing in which ones they look the most beautiful or enigmatic or out of character. To release so many more, all at once, is to shake up the mental reality of the Beatles obsessive.

[See also: The return of the Beatles vs Stones wars]

Photo, 1964 Paul McCartney

The band were followed by banks of cameras and film equipment during this period and McCartney’s thing was to turn the camera on them. While many of his Paris photos are casual, thumbs-up tributes to the girls of the New Wave, his photos of people taking photos are gently surrealistic, like the fantastic face-off with two snappers, one with a cine camera; or the intriguing shot of a young girl looking through his car window. She can’t be more than 13, in her headscarf, and unlike other fans, who fainted and screamed, she looks contained, wise, almost unbothered with him.

The Beatles admired the surrealist photographer Angus McBean, who’d shot the cover of their debut album Please Please Me. They knew David Bailey, from whom McCartney traces the love of mirrors; and they knew the German artist Astrid Kirchherr, who had taken their first group portraits. She worked with a Hasselblad cameras, so Paul bought one for his brother Mike who became a photographer. McCartney thought that Kirchherr’s polo-necked, existentialist, art-school crowd were cool – but he still calls them “artsy”. He has a strange way of remaining on the outside of things – I was in the Beatles! – which is maybe why he likes taking photographs.

At a talk at the National Portrait Gallery for the opening of this show, he remarked that for him 60 years ago is just yesterday: “I mean, I always get amazed, this is still that body!” he said. Then he squeezed his own arm to prove he was still here.

“Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm” is on at the National Portrait Gallery, London, WC2H until 1 October.

[See also: The war within Pink Floyd]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation