Rediscovered photos of Paul McCartney show Beatlemania from the inside


Is there really a new way to see The Beatles, one of the most filmed and photographed bands in history?

Yes, says Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, offering a new perspective with an exhibition of images of the band that Paul McCartney captured when the group rose to global fame.

Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan said the exhibition, subtitled “Eyes of the Storm,” is a chance “to see, for the first time, Beatlemania from the inside.”

The seed for the exhibition was sown in 2020, that year of lockdown projects, when McCartney unearthed 1,000 forgotten photos he had taken in 1963 and 1964, as the Fab Four went from rising British celebrities to global megastars. He and his team asked if the National Portrait Gallery was interested in exhibiting them.

“I think you can probably guess our answer,” Cullinan said as he introduced the exhibit to reporters in London on Tuesday.

The show includes 250 photographs taken in England, France and the United States illustrating The Beatles’ journey from the cramped backstage rooms of provincial British theaters to stadium shows and luxury hotels.

“It was a crazy whirlwind we were living through,” McCartney writes in a note at the beginning of the exhibition. “We wondered about the world, excited about all these little things that were shaping our lives.”

Rosie Broadley, the show’s curator, said the gallery soon realized that the trove “wasn’t just interesting photographs of a famous person.”

“It actually tells an important story about cultural history: British cultural history and international cultural history,” he said. “This is a time when British culture took over the world for a while.”

The exhibit begins in late 1963, shortly after McCartney’s purchase of a Pentax 35mm camera. Early black-and-white images include portraits of the Beatles, their parents, girlfriends, crew, and colleagues, including manager Brian Epstein.

Broadley said these images depict “a post-war British parochial celebrity”: gigs in provincial cinemas alongside now unknown bands like Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, 16-night variety-style Christmas shows at London’s Finsbury Park Astoria.

Cullinan said the photos convey a “feeling of intimacy” that is lacking in professional band photos.

“It wasn’t about The Beatles being photographed by paparazzi press photographers, but between peers,” he said. “So there’s a real tenderness and vulnerability in these images.”

In January 1964, McCartney took his camera with the band to Paris, capturing the city at the height of the French New Wave. While there, The Beatles learned that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a number one hit in the United States.

Within days, they were on a plane to New York, where their February 9 performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was watched by 73 million people, and nothing was ever the same.

The American section of the exhibit shows the increasingly hectic life of the band. Many of the shots were taken from planes, trains and chauffeur-driven cars and show crowds of screaming fans and lines of police officers. Sometimes McCartney would refocus his lens on the newspaper and magazine photographers looking at him.

A striking shot was taken through the rear window of a car as a mob chased the band down a Manhattan street, a scene repeated in the band’s first feature film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” made later. this year.

McCartney also took pictures of strangers: a girl seen through a train window, ground crew at the Miami airport goofing around.

The band’s last stop was Miami, where McCartney moved on to color film. The results, Broadley said, “look like a Technicolor movie, like an Elvis movie.” The photos show John, Paul, George and Ringo swimming, sunbathing, water skiing and even fishing. From a hotel window, McCartney photographed fans writing “I love Paul” in giant letters in the sand.

McCartney, 81, spent hours talking to curators about the photos and their memories as they prepared the exhibition, one of the shows that reopened the National Portrait Gallery after a three-year renovation.

The images were preserved for decades in undeveloped negatives or contact sheets, and McCartney had never seen them in large format until the gallery printed them.

The project was not without risk. McCartney acknowledges that he is not a professional photographer, although his late wife Linda McCartney was, as was his daughter Mary McCartney. Some of the photos are blurry or hastily composed. But what they lack in technique they make up for in spontaneity.

Broadley said that McCartney “was nervous about showing some of the less formally composed or less focused ones.”

“But I think we convinced him that we like them because of the story they tell,” she said. “It’s really nice to have those where they’re sitting down with a cup of tea before the event.”

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