In a Paris hotel room, Paul snapped a black-and-white selfie in a mirror. On the street, his friend John leaned into the camera frame, striking a goofy and almost schoolboy-like pose shortly before they jetted to America on a trip that would change their lives and millions of others’ forever.
World culture was indefinitely altered when they and the rest of the Beatles in February 1964 stepped off a plane onto a New York City tarmac, to a real-life soundtrack of shrieks from the several thousand young women who’d gathered. In America, Paul snapped a picture of newsmen chasing after their car and photographed the photographers who took pictures of him. Out of New York, he used color film to get a bright portrait of a shirtless George in Miami Beach. Once he even went bokeh, using the effect to capture an artistically blurred Ringo Starr smile.
Paul McCartney was a prolific photographer as a Beatle, and 250 of his images are making their U.S. debut in Norfolk at the Chrysler Museum of Art. This exhibition consists of photos he made shortly before and during the band’s first trip to the U.S., providing a taste of the private side of Beatlemania — the Fab Four during their downtime, the quieter moments in between grand adventures.
“Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm” will be on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art starting Tuesday through April 7.
The Beatles landed a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1964 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and 73 million viewers watched their American television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” They would go on to score 19 more No. 1 songs and became a mainstay of American culture, their popularity enduring even after they disbanded in 1970. Paul famously wrote or co-wrote the majority of the group’s hits with John Lennon — but few people knew that he once carried a Pentax camera everywhere he went during the earliest days of their success.
The 250 images in the show, taken between November 1963 and February 1964, were rediscovered in McCartney’s personal archive in 2020 while a team at his production company worked on a project about his late wife, Linda McCartney.
The photos have been displayed exclusively at the National Portrait Gallery in London. McCartney could have selected any American museum to showcase his pictures; few museum directors would have said no to a Beatle.
But he agreed to Norfolk. And that’s a big deal, said Lloyd DeWitt, senior curator at the Chrysler.
DeWitt has a working relationship with Melanie Pilbrow, the head of international programs at the National Portrait Gallery, and they have spoken for years about the possibility of bringing a British expo to the Chrysler. So while DeWitt wasn’t shocked that she came to him with the prospect of hosting McCartney’s photos, the offer came as an exciting surprise.
It also arrived with pressure: The expectation was perfection, a seamless transition and flawless redisplay in Virginia.
“It was a risky show,” DeWitt said.
“It’s a celebrity’s photographs and you really have to flip through it to realize: ‘Oh my goodness. This is a really unprecedented moment.’ It’s about photography and about what photography can do. And we are broadening our notion of what is museum photography.”
When the Beatles flew across the pond for the 1964 tour, they had no way of knowing whether their popularity would endure and whether this would be their one shot at experiencing the States. McCartney took pictures just as any tourist would, DeWitt said.
“Paul was just snapping away with his brand-new Pentax. It’s the relationships,” he added, “and the friendships that really come out.”
When the photos were rediscovered, their cultural value was immediately apparent, said Sarah Brown, McCartney’s photographic curator and archivist.
Not only do they illustrate the 1960s, a time of enormous social upheaval in the Western world, and give an inside look at the Beatles, but they also are just pretty good, she said.
McCartney, Brown said, took photos that “had a great kind of artistic integrity to them,” candidly capturing time and place.
“They were really looking from a British perspective at America,” she said. “So, everything was so exciting. It was bigger. It was bolder. It was brighter.”
The exhibition was curated from about 1,000 rediscovered pictures. It also features some videos of the band. And although McCartney’s camera has been lost, a Pentax similar to the one he used in his youth will be on display.
Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8139, email@example.com
If you go
When: members only, Tuesday and Wednesday. Dec. 7-April 7: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, 1 Memorial Place, Norfolk