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When giants walked the earth

Linda McCartneys photography and the faces of rock n roll

  • The Estate of Linda McCartney, 1998
  • Jimi Hendrix

The Fine Arts Center's latest show, Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era, which opens on Valentine's Day, is just as interesting as you might expect.

It's a modest show -- just 51 framed photographs. But consider the photographer -- Linda Eastman McCartney, Sir Paul's late wife. And consider the subjects -- Joplin, Hendrix, the Stones, The Dead, Dylan, and, of course, The Beatles. And consider the era: 1966-69, when giants walked the earth.

It's no wonder that this show, which has been touring since its inception in 1999, has met with such success. McCartney brilliantly depicts the nascent Celebrity Rock Culture that she both witnessed and helped to create.

According to the blurb that accompanies the show, "she photographed the likes of The Doors and The Who before they catapulted to stardom. ... She was there, back stage, on tour, and in concert, an accepted 'band member whose instrument was the camera,' as she once put it."

That's the show's aura. That's what'll pull boomers by the hundreds and thousands to the FAC, wistful 50-somethings who didn't spend the Summer of Love in San Francisco, who didn't hang with the Stones, who never had a backstage pass, who were never on the bus, and didn't get naked in the mud at Woodstock.

McCartney brought a compassionate seriousness to her work that is illuminating and often beautiful. Look at her 1967 close-up of a pensive Janis Joplin -- raw, intimate, revealing. There were no barriers between Joplin and the photographer -- it's a work of art that bears comparison with, say, Diane Arbus' 1968 portrait of Brenda Frazier. And look at McCartney's portrait of Judy Collins, or of David Crosby, or of the alarmingly corpse-like Michael J. Pollard. These are at once fine works of art, fascinating historical documents, and open, unmediated character studies. And this group includes as well the tender portraits of her husband and of his friend and partner, John Lennon.

Some of her works have the sleek emptiness of fashion photography. That's not the photographer's fault; it's because her subjects -- the young Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison -- are already victims of their own celebrity. Veiled, self-aware, turned inward -- they're remote and iconic, unavailable to McCartney's inquisitive camera.

There's Gracie Slick, clowning with Spencer Dryden -- can you believe that she was so young, and so beautiful? And Frank Zappa -- was there ever anyone cooler? They're all here -- the family we wished we had, the people we thought we knew.

McCartney didn't just flame out and disappear when the '60s ended. As well as wife, mother and musician, she was a photographer until her early death in 1998. Fittingly, the show's coda consists of two masterful works from 1993 and 1996. The latter, "Stallion and Standing Stone II," ranks, in my opinion, with the greatest images of the 20th century.

So even if you're not one of the young geriatric set (born 1955 or before), don't miss this one. We all knew that Linda was married to a great artist; and it looks as if Paul was too.

-- John Hazlehurst


Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era

Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Open Tues.-Sat., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun., 1-5 p.m. Feb. 14 through April 10

Museum admission $2-$5. Free to members and free to all on Saturdays.

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