Paul McCartney Talks About His Beatles Photos Coming to the Brooklyn Museum


They are now a collector’s trove — Paul McCartney’s own photos, shot 60 years ago, when the Beatles took Europe and America by storm: images of screaming fans (one carrying a live monkey); a girl in a yellow bikini; airport workers playing air guitar, and unguarded moments grabbed from trains, planes and automobiles.

McCartney, now 81, doesn’t like to sit still and reminisce about the past, so he chatted while driving home from his recording studio in Sussex, England. “My American friends call these small, one-way lanes ‘gun barrels,’” he said, warning his interviewer that at any moment the signal might die (it did). In the end, it took two days to complete a coherent conversation about the breakthrough period when the Beatles went viral, captured in the traveling exhibition “Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-1964: Eyes of the Storm,” which features 250 of his shots. Currently it’s at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., and comes to the Brooklyn Museum May 3-August 18. (Don’t be surprised if the artist shows up for the opening.)

It was McCartney’s archivist, Sarah Brown, who found 1,000 photographs the musician had taken over 12 weeks — from Dec. 7, 1963, to Feb. 21, 1964 — in the artist’s library.

“I thought the photos were lost,” he said. ‘‘In the ’60s it was pretty easy. Often doors were left open. We’d invite fans in.” Even the recording studio wasn’t a safe space. “I was taking my daughter Mary to the British Library to show her where to research for her exams, and in one display case I saw the lyric sheet for ‘Yesterday,’” he said. A sticky-fingered biographer had swiped the original from their studio.

Rosie Broadley, a senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where the show was inaugurated, said, “His photographs show us what it was like to look through his eyes while the Beatles conquered the world.”

McCartney won an art prize at school and practiced photography with his brother, Mike (who later became a professional photographer). He graduated to a 35 mm SLR Pentax camera when the Beatles hit it big.

“It was the most sophisticated hand-held camera of the era. It would be like having the latest iPhone today,” Darius Himes, Christie’s international head of photography, said, adding: “We were all quite surprised by Paul’s sophisticated eye, and his awareness of trends in the visual arts. The yellow bikini shot is like a striking mix of Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and William Klein.”

The Beatles traveled with a flock of cameramen and were not shy about gleaning tips. McCartney admitted some of his earliest shots in the exhibition are a little fuzzily focused. “I console myself that one of my favorite photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron, also liked soft focus,” he said.

“His photos get better as he practices,” Broadley noted. The exhibition, and its accompanying book, take visitors on a whirlwind trip through six cities beginning in Liverpool and London, and ending in Miami. The images from the British leg are exhibited in small ‘‘austerity’’ walnut frames, to indicate Britain was still in throes of a postwar recession. The Fab Four might look nervous in these photos, but they had already reached stardom on their home turf, having bagged three No. 1 singles and met the Queen.

After a brief stint performing at the Olympia in Paris, alongside Sylvie Vartan, they heard that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was No. 1 on the American charts and sped to New York. The crowning moment in America was their live television debut on the “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964, singing five propulsive pop hits — an event watched by 73 million people.

In Miami, McCartney’s photos burst into Kodachrome color and the newly minted celebrities seem to bloom in glamorous new surroundings: lounging poolside, sipping scotch and riding around in motorboats. By April, the Beatles’ songs held the top five spots on the U.S. Billboard charts.

Musing on the images, he said, “There is an innocence to them,” adding, “I think it was a lot more fun than it was. We worked probably 360 days out of the year.” It was an all too brief halcyon period. Two and a half years later, the Beatles stopped touring. The logistics, the screams, the armored cars, had become a nightmare.

Like most successful artists thriving past retirement age, McCartney has projectitis. He’s working on a new album with the producer Andrew Watt (“Hackney Diamonds”), and just released the 50th anniversary remaster of the Paul McCartney & Wings classic “Band on the Run.” “His live shows continue to be of such high voltage one half expects him to burst into flames,” the Irish poet Paul Muldoon wrote in McCartney’s recent book, “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present.”

His next project is organizing a gallery sale of some of his photographs. “It’s a process I like,” he said, describing the joy of curating. “I’ve done it a few times with Linda’s work” [a reference to his first wife, the photographer, Linda Eastman]. His current homes, shared with his wife Nancy Shevell, are adorned with images by Linda and Mary, though, curiously, none of his own. But that may change. ‘‘The sale,” he said, “will probably encourage me to get some for myself.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation, in which he reflected on popular images in the exhibition.

My favorite photos are of John and George. There’s a huge sentimental aspect to them. No one else could have taken this pic. John was a great character. A very different kind of guy to the other boys I knew. We met at the village fete. He was playing with his band. He was a year and a half older than me [and] my first friend who wore glasses. He was always taking them off and polishing them. I found it fascinating. He’d take them off in public, which rendered him half blind. Onstage, he just stood there and gazed out into the blackness. Maybe it helped him focus on playing.

We began by playing in really crummy little clubs and bars in Liverpool and Hamburg. In Germany, we slept in a little room, with a Union Jack flag for a blanket. Back in England, it started to get a little better. We played in ballrooms, got radio work and then TV work. It was like a staircase ascent for us. What nobody realized is, by this time [seven months after the Beatles’ first No. 1 hit on the U.K. charts], we were really fully formed beasts. We’d come from the postwar years into a Britain that was now experiencing joy for the first time in decades, and we ate it up.

Our Pentax cameras were probably a gift. There was a lot of artistic black and white photography emerging at that time. We admired David Bailey [who had a Pentax camera], Don McCullin, a stunning war photographer, and Norman Parkinson. When he took our picture, he’d say ‘give me big eyes’ and we’d all play along. I like to shoot through the mirror because things look good in a mirror. We all smoked. Smoking gave us a suave, grown-up feel. We were pretty young. I was just 21.

Our aim was always to have fun. I think that communicates itself and became part of the reason we were so popular. It is just a characteristic of Liverpool people to have a laugh. [Paul snapped this shot of Ringo during a staged photo shoot with Dezo Hoffmann, one of their court photographers.] Dezo was a very nice guy. He would give us hints as to the aperture and all the various things needed to make a good photograph.

Here’s a pic of Beatles fans acting like they should. … Going crazy! We didn’t know what we were gonna get in America; if anyone would turn out to meet us. On the plane over, the pilot radioed ahead and was told there were gangs of fans waiting. [Over 4,000 screaming girls held back by 200 policemen.] Manhattan was big, tall, loud and brash. There were stories of fans breaking into our room at the Plaza Hotel. Those were more stories than reality. We probably wished it would happen.

We had done television in England, so we were used to it; the cameras and the lights and all that. What we didn’t really know was how important Ed Sullivan was. He was the BIG ONE. There were two stagehands waiting to draw back the curtains for us to go on and one said: ‘You nervous?’ I said, ‘I dunno. Not really.’ He says: ‘You should be. There’s 73 million people watching.’ Then I got nervous. But if you watch that performance, I can’t believe how confident we look. The weird thing about the stage set is Ringo’s [precarious] drum rostrum. I can’t work out how he got up there.

New York journalists thought they were pretty smart and I’m sure they were used to handling dumb pop stars. We had a lot of fun with them, especially at the news conference at J.F.K. [Airport]. We gave as good as we got. It became a game of who could come up with the smartest answer. Often it was the truth. Someone asked George, ‘Do you ever get your hair cut?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yesterday.’ And he’d been to the barber’s the day before.

We loved music and performing. It beat working in a factory. A few years before these pictures, we’d all been fully immersed in working class life in Liverpool. I have a fascination with working class people like this man [a railroad worker caught from a train en route to Washington, D.C.]. Working class people are the smartest people I’ve ever met. My cousin Bert [Danher] was an insurance salesman, but he also compiled crosswords for The Guardian and The Times. The photography I admire is spontaneous, like the work of the great [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. It was good to just grab shots on the run. We didn’t have time to think.

Some of my favorite photos are of fans. I really like this one of a young girl with a headscarf looking in a Zen-like manner into my camera. I took it and never looked at it again until I did a print [for the National Portrait Gallery exhibition]. When we started blowing up the images, we got to see all the individual characters. In one photo, at Miami airport, there’s a woman holding up a monkey. You wouldn’t get that past health and safety these days.

This is George living the life in Miami. [McCartney switched to Kodachrome to record the group’s antics in Florida.] Miami felt like wonderland. These pictures were taken at a time when we were all young and beautiful. I mean these are good looking boys, you know! From this perspective, I feel very blessed to have not only known these guys, but to have worked with them and done such great things with them. I feel very blessed.

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