on 14 October 2001
Light from Within was one of Linda McCartney's last projects, completed by her daughter Mary and Martin Harrison, and subtitled "photojournals". Before the advent of photography, journals were written records, of journeys, or just life, and keeping a journal is often recommended to writers, as a way of capturing moments of revelation and reflection that might be of use in another sort of work altogether. In fact, the word photography means writing with light. This book is a real journal, a record of the author's preoccupations, her perceptions, and most of all, her tastes in life.
The phrase "light from within," of course, is also a lyric from another of her last projects, a song named from the chorus: "Oppression won't win. The light comes from within." She's clearly thinking of another kind of light than sunlight, which was crucial to her photographic methods. She preferred to photograph natural light falling on unposed people and the natural world, usually animals or landscapes. But the light from within is a different concept, and seems to have meant the light of the human mind and spirit, shining out from people's faces. It can mean curiosity, warmth, passion, humor, vision, and above all, creativity. So this book has been organized by the artist to reflect the light from without falling on the light from within.
In fact, I think Linda McCartney had a positive genius for finding something revelatory in the most ordinary scenes. (Which reveals that they weren't ordinary at all?) The cover photo is a case in point, and one we have seen before, unlike most of the photos in the book. It is not a conventionally well composed picture--there are too many focal points: a boy, a girl, a man, and a dog haphazardly arranged in an unimproved yardscape. But it is a great shot of a family: a flying five-year-old boy, a nine-year-old girl hunkered down over something in the grass, and the pater familias, who, from his expression, is offering admonishment to the flying child. The dog is calmly doing his dog thing. We will probably never know what the boy is doing: from the way he's holding his hands, he might be making a shadow figure, and watching to see how it will change when he moves. Perhaps, like any kid that age, he just feels like *jumping.* It is also not clear what the girl finds so fascinating in the grass, or why the father (clothed so conventionally in robe and slippers) is taking a morning stroll on top of a fence. (And *if* the father is telling the boy not to jump carelessly from Land Rovers, he's missing the irony of his own perch, one of the many pitfalls of parenthood.) The people and the animal are all related-- and busy being themselves.
Did Linda McCartney go out looking for scenes that might attract her? It seems more likely that she waited for them to happen next to her elbow and then whipped her camera out. She finds what she's looking for in faces very often: children's faces, artists' faces, aged faces, in people unaware they're being photographed, or carelessly aware. The first photo in the book is of her son James peering over her shoulder, trying perhaps to understand the magical act his mother performs with a camera, not conscious that his curious face in the rear-view mirror is magical. She catches Simon and Garfunkel in intense conversation under a leafless forest of microphones. She loves the contrast (and resemblance) between youth and age: a springy five-year-old riding a mechanical giraffe and an elderly man in suit, tie, and wedding ring, making his slower way with two canes. If a picture composes itself accidentally, she has no objection to snapping that, as when the three plump dancers in blue, yellow, and pink confront Brian Clarke who is stork-like in black and offers them cheerful homage. But the subjects are the point, not the abstract composition. Twice she takes a great shot immediately after a more conventionally composed photo has broken up: of a group of aged men in front of a wall, and a group of children wearing hats like flowers. There is innocence in the children's waves, and merriment in an old man's grin. In fact, the sight of this photographer tends to elicit grins and sometimes waves: in the case of her husband, he waves one foot from a ladder in one of his vaudeville imitations. And there is a stunning photo of McCartney's grown daughters, Mary and Stella, who glow with quiet inner passion and seem quite unaware of their own beauty.
McCartney was in love with the life and beauty of animals, and one glorious shot is of an animal of transcendant homeliness, the javelina, standing on a lawn transfigured by the setting sun. Besides getting drunk on her own senses, the photographer got the shot. The mystery of beauty is everywhere in this book, especially the most unlikely places.
And the last series of photos is particularly moving, in the context of the photographer's life at the time she was composing it: a set of shots of tables and whole walls wrecked by the efforts of artists to render their visions in paint. They are like battlefields after the shooting stops. The next-to-last photo in the book is a self-portrait of the artist looking into a cracked mirror, standing straight and serene, a woman with very good bones and very short hair, who was an instinctive and accomplished artist. It's a beautifully composed picture of meanings that I cannot render in words.
If we wish to learn to see the beauty that is all around us, all the time, this book is a fine place to start--to start looking at the faces we pass in the street, at our own families and friends, at the people who sell us newspapers, and at the passing poodles and javelinas of life.