A uniquely personal perspective on being a Beatle at the start of Beatlemania

Installation View
John and George, Paris, 1964
John in Paris, January 1964
Photographers, Central Park, New York, February 1964
Self-portraits in a mirror, Paris, 1964
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The National Portrait Gallery is displaying an unprecedented exhibition of photographs taken by Paul McCartney. These photographs mark the beginnings of an era of British cultural dominance in music, fashion, and film when four young men influenced the world with their music and creativity.

Paul McCartney: Legendary songwriter and cultural icon

Paul McCartney is recognised as one of the great cultural figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He reached international fame as a member of The Beatles and is one of the most distinctive songwriters in popular music, with Yesterday and Hey Jude among his most famous works.

Paul McCartney’s rediscovered photographic gems

He absorbed cultural influences, adapting his style to achieve a particular atmosphere, and learned from the photographers he worked with, who embraced the imperfections of “snapshots”. His acute observation – characterised by the intimate portraits of his bandmates – depicts moments of concentration, relaxation, and joy.

McCartney said, “The truth is that I have always been interested in photography, from the time I was very young, when our family owned a little box camera in the 1950s. I used to love the whole process of loading a roll of Kodak film into our Brownie camera.”

He rediscovered these photographs in his personal archives in 2020, which had existed only as negatives and contact sheets for sixty years. The majority had never been printed.

Unseen Beatles: McCartney’s photographic insight revealed

More than 250 photographs are on display. These never-before-seen images, selected by McCartney and accompanied by personal reflections, offer a unique perspective and provide insight into what it was like to be a “Beatle” during Beatlemania, starting from when they were playing gigs on UK stages to performing to seventy-three million Americans on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Described by McCartney as the “eyes of the storm,” these photographs document The Beatles at a critical moment in the group’s evolution.

Looking at these photos now, decades after they were taken, I find there’s a sort of innocence about them. Everything was new to us at this point.

Paul McCartney

While media nearly always surrounded McCartney, he also used his camera to draw out personal encounters with press photographers and individuals, set against a backdrop of roaring crowds. The exhibition documents the different situations he found himself in, capturing images taken from the inside looking out, including moments on the move and driving through streets lined with screaming fans.

McCartney’s photographic journey: exclusive exhibition experience

Although the exhibition’s narrative presents just four short months, McCartney’s photographs chronologically document the experiences of the band on their travels – grainy black and white portraits taken backstage in Liverpool, rehearsing at a recording studio in Paris, admiring wintry Manhattan skylines, and gleaming colour shots of Miami Beach in the sunshine.

McCartney’s candid lens: The Beatles cultural history

McCartney reflected, “Looking at these photos now, decades after they were taken, I find there’s a sort of innocence about them. Everything was new to us at this point. But I like to think I wouldn’t take them any differently today. They now bring back so many stories, a flood of special memories, which is one of the many reasons I love them all and know that they will always fire my imagination.”

At a time when so many lenses were on the band, Paul McCartney’s photographs offer a crucial new perspective on the story of a band creating cultural history – in one of its most exciting chapters.

Text and photos courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery