From her landscapes to portraits, Mary McCartney’s natural talent shines through. Here she tells MO's Editor what it’s like to be the photographer behind Mandarin Oriental’s Fan Campaign
You were a picture editor before you started taking photographs. Is that right?
Yes, I didn’t really know what to do after I left school, but I knew I was interested in photography, so I got a job at a music book company as a picture researcher. It was nice because I went to all the picture libraries as well as meeting certain photographers who had taken photos of specific bands, and got to look at their archives. So that was interesting and it kind of set me thinking. But still, even then, I didn’t think I could be a professional photographer.
Was it the technical side…?
It was the technical side and, I don’t know, it just didn’t seem like a proper job to me at that point. You know, it was a nice thing to do as a hobby, but I couldn’t do it as a career. Then I got my first job. That was for Frank magazine. Stella [McCartney, her sister] had just started her first big design job at Chloé, and I was asked to go to Paris and do a diary and photograph her first collection.
That was an inspired commission…
It was really good fun because I got to spend time with Stella and I learned a lot about how a collection is put together just by being there, snapping fittings and going out with everyone at night. You know, it clicked with me because it’s what I like to do within my photography: meet people and get into their world and see what they’re doing. You get to find out what goes on behind the scenes. It made me appreciate how much work goes into designing, how much time it takes, and how much dedication it requires. I decided to do a course to learn the mechanics of the camera and that gave me more confidence. From then on, it was just about taking pictures, finding my style and the kind of work I wanted to do.
Did you develop an eye for taking pictures, or was it instinctual?
I think I had that already, but rather than developing an eye it’s about having confidence in my ability and style. Everyone’s different, but with my first paid commission, for example, I would hire loads of equipment and do things I wouldn’t usually do, but I was like, ‘I’m being paid, I’ve got to be professional and organised.’ But I wouldn’t be so happy with the photos because they weren’t my kind of pictures – I was over-compensating. So now I don’t do that. I know what I want to get and if people book me, it’s because they want something that is my style. What I do has probably taken me this long to achieve. You know, some people know instantly what they want to do – for me, it just took longer.
And how did your working relationship with Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group come about?
It was a dream job, really. I got a phone call from my agent saying that Mandarin Oriental’s ad agency wanted me to come in for a ‘chemistry’ meeting, which was really funny but actually makes a lot of sense. I went to Hong Kong to meet the Chief Executive. What was great about Mandarin Oriental was that they wanted me to go to different hotels to get a feel for the brand. At first I thought that was a bit odd – why do they want me to? But it worked well because it made me respect them and understand what it is they’re doing, and to experience the friendliness of the staff… There’s a certain style which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated if I hadn’t gone to several of the hotels.
Do you have a favourite Mandarin Oriental hotel so far?
I love Mandarin Oriental, New York. I love coming out and having that view of Central Park but, then, I’d like to revisit Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. I was only there for one night and I was on my own. I had a butler and didn’t get to utilise the service properly, so I’d like to go back and experience butler service! And the room was practically bigger than my flat at the time, so I didn’t fully get to be fabulous during that stay.
What was it like following in the footsteps of the late Patrick Lichfield [Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s first photographer of Fans]?
It was a little bit daunting because he was such an established photographer, but we have similarities in that he also liked to make his subjects quite relaxed. I thought it was good of Mandarin Oriental to pick a female photographer because it gives a different slant and a slightly different feel. Of course, it was very sad, but nice because he had a great relationship with Mandarin Oriental and that made me feel encouraged. He was with them for years and obviously was a big fan, so it made me more relaxed going in. I didn’t feel defensive. I knew that they respect their photographers and there’s a long-term collaboration.
Rather than developing an eye, taking pictures is about confidence and style
So, how do you go about working on a Campaign with a new Fan?
First, I look at the person and do some research. Then I work directly with them because it needs to be something personal and I want them to be relaxed. Obviously, the whole Campaign is based around it being a place or an image that encapsulates the Fan but, also, I’m quite aware that it’s one image on a page: so how do we get something that will stop you on the page as you’re flicking through? With [singer] Sa Dingding, I tried to think a bit more about movement and materials and we’ve done a really nice shot which is quite fresh. She’s very dynamic, so I’ve tried to capture that. What was great about her was that she started off very reserved. She was dressed in traditional Tibetan materials – covered in fabrics – and as she was getting undressed there were all these different layers coming off and getting more and more funky, like, little beetle-patterned leggings and hearts. She’s an interesting character and she moves well. I wanted to do something with material, to get that Eastern feel. Sa Dingding really liked to perform in front of the camera and Hélène Grimaud, who we just did in Switzerland, was quite different, but she has an amazing smile and a beautiful face.
Hélène is a classical pianist, so we did a nice, classic piano shot, which I tried to mess up a bit by having flowers on the piano rather than in a vase, and sheet music spread around a bit. Then I did another one, which is more clean. Hélène isn’t so naturally comfortable in front of the camera. The challenge was to make her relax and enjoy the shoot. And I think she did. I reassured her that ‘wardrobe’ meant we bring clothes and use the sitter’s clothes as well. The aim of the Campaign is that it’s about that person, it’s not a whole new makeover. It has to be something that they would wear, like Liam Neeson wore his own suit. But we’ll take some extra bits and bobs that they may even want to take home, so we try to add to their own look. It’s quite fun. If I were having my picture taken, I’d quite like someone to give me some clothes to try on!
So you might do two different versions…
We do two versions, one is more classic and one to take the sitter out of their comfort zone. The photography needs to progress visually because it isn’t a new photographer each time, so I need to push the boundaries a little bit more. It still has to be quite chic and clean for Mandarin Oriental, and I understand that.
And what goes on behind the scenes at the Fan shoots?
[Laughs] Do you want the real story? Well, I generally work with quite a small team. There are two ways I like to work: if it’s a production, I usually have a digital operator and an assistant and a producer. Otherwise, it’s me and a camera and a bag of film.
So you shoot on film?
I don’t shoot the Campaign on film any more because I like to get the edit down with the sitter, which is possible on screen, and I’ve got a great digital operator who does the calibration and, really, I did an exhibition last year and one of the pictures was digital and you couldn’t actually see the difference. I was like, ‘Pick which one in the room was digital,’ and no one could pick it out. I still love film because the quality of it and the depth of field is quite different, but when digital is done properly and is of a high quality, it’s pretty amazing. I like them both for different things.
Scotland, 1995, from Mary McCartney’s book, From Where I Stand
Do the Fans give feedback during the shoot?
I do get feedback from them on the day. Generally, they won’t say they don’t want to do something: I would have prediscussed it with them, so they won’t get into that situation. For something like the Mandarin Oriental shoot, I’ll get the sitter to come over and I’ll do an edit, and I’ll show them and say this is the way I’m going… Then if there’s something they hate, because everyone’s got something they hate about themselves – ‘I don’t like my face at that angle’, for example – then I’ll try and work to make them feel comfortable and to get something I’m happy with. So it’s a real collaboration.
Does the travel element enhance or complicate matters?
It’s quite fun. We’re going to China to take pictures of Harry Connick Jr and it’s a bit of an unknown quantity. I can plan the shoot as much as I can, but when I get out there the whole plan will probably change. But I quite like that.
Do you shoot in the hotels?
This time we’re shooting in Mandarin Oriental, Sanya, but we don’t usually shoot at the hotels. That’s just been the history of the Campaign, but I think it’s quite nice to shoot at the hotels more and more. When it began, it was all about the subject and picking their own perfect place, but now the two are marrying together because Mandarin Oriental are doing more resort hotels, which has opened things up for outdoor locations. Before it was all about city hotels. I try to get as many exterior shots as I can, so fingers crossed for the weather!
Tell us about your book.
I’ts my first one, with Thames & Hudson [titled From Where I Stand]. I always take pictures, but I take them, look at them, then file them away. Last year I thought, actually, it’s time to do a book and go back and revisit all my contact sheets, which is quite daunting because there are so many pictures – and how do you structure it? So it became more of a personal structure: the book starts off quite quietly and landscapey and then goes into portraits and then comes back out quite quietly as well. Hopefully, it sort of says something about my character and what I’m interested in.
Was that the idea?
Yeah, keep it quite personal and not too eclectic. Having said that, it is quite eclectic because I’m always snapping different things.
What inspires you – do you always have a camera with you?
I like just wandering and watching people. There are moments, if I’m at an event, or I’m going somewhere, or at a shoot… Often when someone is not performing for the camera is when something interesting happens and I hate missing those moments.
Gemma Bond, Royal Opera House, London, 2004, from Mary McCartney’s book, From Where I Stand
In terms of your peers, whose work do you admire?
I suppose I like certain projects that people do. I love that Richard Billingham book, Ray’s a Laugh. I love Gursky and more epic work, probably things that I wouldn’t do myself. I mean, I like David LaChapelle. I think they’re all quite mad and I’d never do that kind of photography and I wouldn’t necessarily put it up on my wall. I suppose I like flicking through books with new work and then, for my home, I like vintage black and white, which is what inspired me in the first place.
What do you like about vintage photographs?
I just love that old-fashioned black-and-white quality and I like the historic feel behind them. I went to see a Berenice Abbott exhibition a few years ago and I came out just totally wanting to take pictures of buildings and façades. Those kind of things, that energy… I think there weren’t so many people taking photographs then, and their characters really came across.
The campaign is about that person, not a whole new makeover
Scotland, 2003, from Mary McCartney’s book, From Where I Stand
Yes, and the women photographers…
Diane Arbus. I love Diane Arbus. So I suppose her and Lartigue are among my definite favourites, but some of his best photographs were taken when he was, like, nine. It’s disconcerting!
How do you see your work evolving in the future?
I suppose doing more personal projects. Getting into different situations and spending a few weeks or months with certain subjects is something I’d like to do, so you can get more in-depth.
And does that always result in an exhibition?
It doesn’t, no, that’s not necessarily the way I work. But I probably would do it with that in mind and then do the project and then from there edit and, yeah, the natural thing is the exhibition and a book.
And who or what would you most like to photograph?
You know what? Today, I was jogging around with my dog and thinking I would quite like to photograph Eminem. I’ve been listening to him a lot recently. I think he’s so bright and a bit scary and quite an intense character. It would be a real challenge to get him in front of the camera because he looks quite guarded as well. He’s sort of soft and angry and quite interesting, and I’d like to watch him for a while. He’s been through so much and I really find it quite intriguing listening to his music. And he seems quite real: he doesn’t put on a veneer – what you see is what you get. He’d be interesting and challenging.