In the studio with Mary McCartney

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© Alice Zoo

The photographer’s influences range from Eve Arnold and Pre-Raphaelite painters to her artist mother. She welcomes us to her West London studio, Leica camera in hand

In the bathroom on the ground floor of Mary McCartney’s studio hangs a framed image of the Queen. Dressed in pink florals, she gazes shrewdly from the front page of The Daily Telegraph, framed by one of her famous red briefing boxes. Over the decades, the Queen was captured in many moods, via many methods. Stately as a painting, soft in black-and-white, snapped at close range with flash – each iteration becoming as much a portrait of the photographer as it is of the monarch herself.

McCartney made the picture in 2015 to celebrate Elizabeth II becoming Britain’s longest reigning monarch. Like much of her work, it has a candid feeling of something caught mid-motion – the Queen glancing over her shoulder at something beyond the lens, reading glasses just visible in one hand.

©Alice Zoo
©Alice Zoo

McCartney’s studio is testament to her varied and visually alert career. Tucked away on a quiet cobbled mews in West London, its three floors combine all of the practical needs of a working environment – office space, shoot backdrops, an extensive range of herbal teas – with the white-washed atmosphere of a gallery.

The space is festooned with McCartney’s images: some in a state of completion, printed at huge scale, others attached to a large silver board with magnets, covered in felt tip notes. A monobrowed Tracey Emin (as Frida Kahlo) stares down from one wall. Mark Rylance dressed as Olivia from Twelfth Night from another. Celebrities face off frogs and white horses, reigning over the neatly arranged piles of contact sheets and books. On the floor, a photo of neon lights has been turned into a rug.

“When I first came here, it was all offices,” McCartney explains. “I just stripped it out… It’s nice to have it quite clean.” We are sitting at a huge round, wooden table that used to belong to McCartney’s mother, Linda. To one side, a bank of windows reveals a bright-ish winter day – all that glass crucial for a photographer who prefers to work with natural light. In the background members of her team drift up and down the stairs.

McCartney has been here for more than two decades, using it as a hub for photographing, post-production, exhibition organisation, ideas generation, and more. For her most recent publication – a plant-based cookbook-cum-portrait project called Feeding Creativity in which she captured figures including the Haim sisters and David Hockney eating her meals – she had two large armchairs installed near the kitchen so that she had somewhere comfortable to sit and write. 

©Alice Zoo

“It became my friend. What I like about film is that when you’re wandering taking pictures, it’s just you and the camera

The table is not the only thing McCartney has inherited from her mother. Also a photographer, Linda McCartney was responsible for providing Mary with her very first camera, a Leica R7. After grappling with the challenges of shutter speeds and light meters, it quickly offered a new window onto the world, travelling everywhere with her. “It became my friend,” McCartney says. “What I like about film is that when you’re wandering taking pictures, it’s just you and the camera.”

In her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’, Virginia Woolf dwelled on the pleasures of walking through London. She describes the process of becoming extra-observant, distilled to “a central pearl of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” For McCartney, the camera crystallised a similar feeling – preserving and making concrete the fleeting details she had been noticing since childhood. “It can be this big scene, but you see one little flower or something within it and it then seems like a photograph.”

©Alice Zoo
©Alice Zoo
©Alice Zoo

As an ambassador, McCartney works frequently with Leica cameras, whether an SL for “all singing, all dancing” projects that might end up on a billboard, or the Q “if you’re out and about, or at a party.” She also has “a little compact Leica” which fits in her bag – another portable eye.

This range of models speaks to the breadth of her work, spanning portraiture, fashion, landscape, and documentary (both static and film), as well as more commercial endeavours. A particular light comes into her eyes when discussing portraiture: the delicacy of creating a rapport, knowing when to speak and when to be silent, the skills both personal and technical that go into reaching something “deeper than surface level.”

©Alice Zoo

If I could do a portrait of someone and just be in their home and take a picture of their unmade bed, that would make me happy


Some of McCartney’s portraits are made here in the studio. “If I’m shooting here… it pares it all back,” she observes. “It’s really about the pose, the connection, how you’re feeling with the person. There’s less space to hide.” Really though, one suspects that she is happiest out and about where her gaze can rove.

“I love going into somebody’s environment,” she confirms, explaining her interest in what people’s possessions and personal clutter betray about them, “like how Pre-Raphaelite painters would have little symbols.” She references a 1996 photo of hers titled ‘Mum’s Side of the Bed’, a patch of sunlight falling across beautifully embroidered duvet and pillows. “If I could do a portrait of someone and just be in their home and take a picture of their unmade bed, that would make me happy.”

This image is currently sitting as a sizable print on the ground floor, resting against the bookshelves. It is magnificent up close, the scale revealing every wrinkle and stitch. It was recently featured in her 2023 Sotheby’s show Can We Have a Moment?, part of a trilogy of solo exhibitions that began at the Château La Coste in France and ended at A Hug From the Art World in New York last November.

Each taking a different theme, this trilogy gave McCartney free reign to revisit her archives from the past three decades, drawing new threads between her intimate, playful images – family portraits, rubbing shoulders with snogging couples, muddy festival-goers, fleshy roses, and performers readying themselves backstage.

©Alice Zoo
©Alice Zoo

The pleasure of a photograph is not just in the taking, but in its continued afterlife. McCartney’s studio points to the ongoing physicality of a photograph, whether it is a question of tweaking colours and rebalancing shadows or drawing out fresh details in the chosen scale and opacity of a print. In an exhibition setting, too, new conversations can be created as disparate images speak to one another across time and genre.

Towards the end of our conversation, McCartney brings up a fortuitous encounter she had with Magnum photographer Eve Arnold in the 1990s while overseeing a show of Linda’s work in a museum in Bradford. Arnold was working on her own in an adjacent gallery. “She was incredible… She looked like the lady in the [Looney Toons] Tweety bird cartoons. But then when you observed her hanging the show, she knew exactly what she wanted. She was very direct, feisty in a really good way.”

©Alice Zoo

Take a moment, observe, and think – what is it that I see here?


The two got to know one another and McCartney learned an important lesson from this woman who had coaxed extraordinary candour from the famous: that the subject should always come first. “She had so much trust with her sitters,” McCartney reflects. Sometimes the perfect image might arrange itself in front of the camera as if conjured – but if it ruptures that sense of trust, it is not worth it. This sort of mutuality seems to define McCartney’s work, which often has a grounded, contemplative edge, full of quiet warmth. Really, it is very simple, she says. When you lift a camera, you “take a moment, observe, and think – what is it that I see here?”


Images taken by Alice Zoo with Leica’s SL2-S, with 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses