Glass reviews Mike McCartney’s new book – Early Liverpool

LIVERPOOL the city of my mother’s birth and her parents before her, is in my blood. Its ugly beauty, its inability to (in older days) fix itself after heavy bombing in WW2, and later on, it’s place on the map via the Beatles and in the 1980s, the Bunnymen and the scene evolving around the club Eric’s – remain a fixture in my identity.

So, any book of photos of this place will appeal, but this book Mike McCartney’s Early Liverpool, a collection of original work by photographer and musician Mike McCartney, is something else.

Mike has an highly intuitive sense of the moment. He was also in the right place at the most exciting times, but on top of that, has a keen artistic eye for composition, knowing instinctively that if you are photographing a person, or a famous band, that this might not be the thing that makes the photo happen, or makes it interesting.

It could be Paul and John composing “I Saw Her Standing There” in a front room, but the focus is on the guitar, not The Beatles.

Liverpool Lovers. Photograph: Mike McCartney

The book is a collector’s item and not just for Beatles people but for Liverpool people and fans of artistic photography, of darkness and light, of perfect composition.

The accompanying text tells the stories behind the photos, and while some of it is humorous and all of it, informative, the photos stand on their own, stark, some double, even triple exposures, and all of them, teleporting you back to that time and place, even if it was not your time and place.

Ursula, The Albert Dock, by the Mersey. Photograph: Mike McCartney

To be frank, it is very early Beatles heavy, and that’s OK in the context that at that time, early 1960s, they were starting to happen but had not happened yet. Ruddy cheeked and thin, in the McCartney’s front room, you see the magic starting to take shape, with the requisite ‘60s wallpaper and the probably not often coal fire.

Just regular lads jamming, the brother taking photos, all of them thinking, this might not go anywhere. It is devoid of arrogance. It might have happened, and it did, but it might have not.

But you also see gorgeous images of The Mersey, rocky and dirty and juxtaposed with a ’60s dollybird in a mac.  The Cast Iron Shore, the dirty Liver buildings – before they cleaned them up not too long ago. Liverpool courses heavily through Mike’s blood and camera, and for this photography fan, it is sheer joy. Anybody who does not understand why Liverpool matters so much, just get this book.

Skool book. Photograph: Mike McCartney

Glass talked to McCartney and he shares with us his influences and talks about his favourite photo in the collection.

Astrid Kirchherr, stylist, muse, photographer and big Beatles influence in the Hamburg touring years, was a big influence on Mike’s style of photography.

“She just loved them, but it was so much more than that. She thought about lighting,  positioning, how the photograph would look. None of us knew what they were to become, and she was just capturing the moment.

“So, when I started to photograph our kid and the band in rehearsals, it was similar. None of us knew, then, how big they were going to be, so we were just treating it as a photo of a band in the front room. Our kid put his guitar down on Dad’s chair, and I took a photo and it was the shape of the guitar that interested me more than the band.

“Also, there were springs popping out of one of the arms of the chair, but that was how it was. It was the beauty of the guitar, the shape, that was more important to me. There was a moment in time when we thought we had nothing and thought they were going nowhere, but they did it out of love.”

As did Mike and his photography; it was out of love, for photography, the scene, and Liverpool itself. When I ask him about the cult of instant photography, and social media, that, who would have thought it, every phone is also a camera, every instant a potential memory, does that cheapen the art or democratise it?

“I think it’s great! Photography is about capturing a moment and if more people are able to do so, it’s good. Capture the moment and make it available. Just do it, take the photo. In the early days, and the photo is in the book, I took some photos of seagulls and when they got developed, they just looked like two dots in the sky. So, you go back and do it again.”

So, though Mike is schooled in the olden ways, he was then, as he is now, all about the moment, the perfect moment, more than the previously thought-out composition.

Albatros Seagull. Photograph: Mike McCartney

And as beautifully as that works in this book, capturing a great moment, in a great city, in a great time, you get the sense that Mike could find beauty in some discarded paper cups. He has the vision to see things differently, beautifully, focusing on the seemingly unimportant. That is why can wholeheartedly recommend this book to all lovers of ugly beauty, of Liverpool, and of exquisite photography.

by Michele Kirsch

Mike McCartney’s Early Liverpool (Genesis Books) by Mike McCartney is a limited edition publication retailing at £325