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Memphis Flyer One of the Beautiful People

Linda McCartney's photographs of the '60s captured a special time and a special people.

By Chris Davis

JULY 24, 2000:  Imagine this: You are sitting cross-legged on the bed in a smallish, moderately priced Holiday Inn on New York's West Side. It is the mid-1960s, and this particular room has been rented out by Chas Chandler, the steady-handed bass player for a hot (but cooling), notoriously drug-loving, Brit blues band called the Animals.

You know the Animals; they're the group that hit it big with an organ-drenched cover of "House of the Rising Sun." Given the mangy group's proclivities for deviance, it's fairly likely that pot smoke is hanging thick in the air. Other intoxicants are certainly available, if not actually scattered about the room in full view. The television is on, but the volume has been turned all the way down. An Elvis movie is playing. It doesn't matter which one, since nobody who was actually involved in this scenario can remember which Elvis movie it was.

Chandler announces with great enthusiasm that, while out on his last tour with the Animals, he discovered "the next big thing." To illustrate his point, he begins to thread a bulky reel-to-reel player with an unwieldly demo tape. Once everything is in place, he pushes play and looks at you to watch your response. Guitars drip molasses, and a thick, soulful voice begins to slowly, plaintively sing, "Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand?" The recording, it turns out, is of an unknown artist named Jimi Hendrix, the man who would very soon reinvent guitar rock. Chandler, who wishes to become Hendrix's manager, explains to you that the expatriate American musician has gained a small following in Europe, but that he is also extremely insecure about his talent and almost certain that his music can never be understood by American record execs.

To lovers of rock-and-roll, the once-rebellious musical form that to this day lives in the shadow of '60s icons like Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Jim Morrison, this scene no doubt sounds quite glamorous. There are few thrills that can match the thrill of being on the "inside" when something big is going down. To Linda Eastman, the fashion photographer who would later marry Paul McCartney, it was just another day at work.

Few photographers have been able to breech the defenses of celebrityhood and become as close to their subjects as was McCartney. The results are an impressive, relatively candid photographic document of rock-and-roll's precocious, if overly marketed adolescence. Fifty-six of McCartney's photographs are on the way to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where they will be on display until September 10th. While the Brooks' decision to bring "Linda McCartney's Sixties -- Portrait of an Era" to the museum may very well represent one more attempt to cash in on the Baby Boomers' obsession with their lost youth, it is not without its academic merits and cannot be so easily dismissed. While McCartney's work is often only as strong as the personality of the subject she is photographing, there is an intimacy and urgency in her pictures that puts her head and shoulders above other celebrity shutterbugs. Though she may not have Annie Lebowitz's eye for detail or Robert Mapplethorpe's clean lines, the one thing she has more than makes up for any deficiency of style: She has authenticity.

Linda Eastman McCartney, who died of cancer in 1998, was not (in spite of her chosen career and the self-perpetuating myth) related to the Eastmans of Eastman/Kodak. And though her father was a successful lawyer, she hardly had a life of privilege. She was taking pictures whenever she could and working as a full-time receptionist when she got her first big break photographing the Rolling Stones. Shortly thereafter, she became the house photographer for the Fillmore East. It was a non-paying gig that gave her instant access to any number of rising stars. And since she was just another member of the crew, it was easier for the young and stylish shutterbug to befriend the artists who came to the Fillmore. Over the next several years Eastman would snap both candids and formal portraits of artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Country Joe and the Fish, Frank Zappa, Otis Redding, Tiny Tim, Tim (the father of Jeff) Buckley, and Blue Cheer. She would count Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix as close friends. She would marry Paul McCartney, her second-favorite Beatle. Hers was an extraordinary, if underrated career. Hers is likewise a rare instance where sheer quantity of product excuses occasional lapses in quality.

The downside of the Brooks exhibit is that it only features 56 photographs, not nearly enough to capture McCartney's contribution, which ultimately was one of comprehensiveness. Blues fans will be glad to know that her exceptional shots of B.B. King, live at the Fillmore East, will be on display, alongside rock icons like Cream, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and, of course, Paul McCartney and the Beatles.

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