The world’s initial glimpse of Mary McCartney, first-born child of Paul and Linda McCartney, was in a casual snapshot of her perennially cute dad. With the ruddy light of a Scottish dusk streaking across his bearded face, Paul McCartney posed with his baby girl tucked deep inside the cocoon of his fur-collared jacket.
That pastoral shot would grace the back cover of McCartney’s first solo album, in 1970.
“It’s a bit funny that it has become such an iconic shot and favorite photo for so many people, because it was just a casual family picture,” says the 37-year old Mary McCartney, speaking by phone from London, where she lives. “It was just natural that my father would zip me up in his jacket when they went on their horse rides together and my mom would take that quick photograph.”
McCartney’s sentimental reminiscence is an unexpected digression from the task at hand: promoting her photography exhibit, “Playing Dress Up,” at Dallas’ Goss Gallery, her first show in an American gallery. Significant, but maybe not quite as big as her dad’s U.S. debut, 43 years ago - when America first met the Beatles.
“Yeah, it’s my first show in America, and I’m very excited and flattered. I now know I’m a proper grownup,” says McCartney, in a lilting British accent that bears little resemblance to Sir Paul’s lingering Liverpudlian brogue.
A professional photographer since her early 20s, Mary McCartney creates color-saturated, gauzy-lit high-fashion work that has been shown in Harpers, Elle and The New York Times Magazine. A few of her works are in the permanent collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery.
“Playing Dress Up” is McCartney’s highly personal photo diary of backstage life, both tedious and madcap, in the performance subcultures of fashion shows and ballet. She confesses to a fascination with life behind the scrim, where sweat, grime and paint-drying drudgery prevail, at least before the curtain goes up.
“Whenever I watch a performance, I find myself fantasizing what the people - especially if they are modeling, dancing, or singing - are like in real life,” McCartney says.
And so, in the exhibit’s “Off Pointe” series, she captures Royal Ballet dancers who project none of the tutued perfection they display onstage.
“I was able to record them when they weren’t being `fabulous ballet dancers,’” she says. “They were just being themselves, quirky-looking but still quite beautiful.”
“Fashion” comprises the show’s other main section, where her lens reveals a mildly dystopic view of the glossy runway world - one inhabited by pouty blondes whose only accessory is a smirk.
“I’m too familiar with the world of modeling, of getting your hair and makeup and perfect clothes, so now I’m finding the less-formally posed kind of shots to be to my liking,” she says.
The show’s final section takes advantage of McCartney’s standing among London’s bold-faced set as she trains her camera on pal Kate Moss - looking far removed from the varnished and tweezed Moss that most are familiar with.
McCartney is quick to trace her interest in photography to her late mother - one of the photographers who helped mythologize monumental `60s acts such as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Bob Dylan and, of course, the Beatles.
“One of my mom’s biggest talents,” McCartney recalls, “was making her subjects completely relaxed. I remember one picture she took of Jimi Hendrix yawning. Here is this rock god, just hanging out and yawning. And that was the kind of moment she would get - intimate and flattering.”
Sir Paul, whose recent foray into painting has landed him in the visual arts universe, also has offered some subtle guidance to his daughter.
“Frankly, he has come from the same standpoint as my mom,” his daughter says. “Which is to try and keep the creative pressure as low as possible in order to keep the creativity as high as possible.”
So, is having one of the world’s most recognizable surnames a help or hindrance to this accomplished photographer?
“Clearly, there isn’t as big a pressure on me as there is on my dad,” McCartney says. “I just have never looked at him and his name in the way everyone else does. I distinctly remember when we were kids, and he’d play his guitar and we would say, `Dad, can you shut up, we are trying to watch television.’ And he would then say: `Do you kids know how many people out there actually appreciate my playing?’
“Naturally, he’s not Sir Paul McCartney to me, but just my dad who makes me laugh and smile.”
PLAYING DRESS UP
Through June 15 at Goss Gallery, 2500 Cedar Springs Road in Dallas
10-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11-4 p.m. Saturday