In 2004, London-born photographer Mary McCartney enjoyed six months of unrestricted access to the Royal Ballet, capturing young dancers from the corps as they prepared backstage at the Royal Opera House, relaxed at home and enjoyed the city’s nightlife. These intimate portraits of an all-consuming art form comprise McCartney’s celebrated ballet-behind-the-scenes photo series “Off Pointe.”
“I met a Royal Ballet dancer on a night out in Soho and we ended up late at a bar drinking and then eating some food,” she said of the project’s genesis in a phone interview. “I thought, this is unexpected for a ballet dancer, a lot of devotion and energy goes into what they do, and that got me thinking, what’s it like offstage?”
“Ballerina In Sink II, London” (2004) Credit: Courtesy Mary McCartney
Arriving at the Royal Opera House, where the company performs, with just her camera, and using only available light, McCartney captured dancers smiling and resting, laughing and smoking, eating crisps and checking their phones. Some of the black-and-white shots are brimming with energy; others are candid depictions of exhaustion.
“I wasn’t planning to do so much in the dressing room, but I didn’t realize how many hours they actually spend at the opera house, so it became part of the story,” McCartney said. “I would be there waiting for them, and they just got used to me.”
“Lone Dancer, London” (2004) Credit: Courtesy Mary McCartney
“They are literally a family because a lot of them leave home at age 11 and train at the White Lodge Royal Ballet School, so they have grown up together,” she continued. “They love each other, but there is also tension, like siblings.”
London-born McCartney, the daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney, has fond memories of growing up in a creative home, and as a young woman found herself following in her photographer mother’s footsteps.
“After leaving college I got a job as a photo editor. Then, looking through my mum’s photo archive inspired me to take it seriously,” Mary McCartney recalled. “That was in my early 20s. I got a Leica film camera and just started wandering the streets. What really touched my heart were those unexpected and unplanned moments of life observed. I often know what my subject is and what my location is. I know my start and my end, and the rest I leave up to the relationship.”
“Lighting up, London” (2004) Credit: Courtesy Mary McCartney
Like her mother, who was known for her candid shots of family life and of the celebrities in her midst — Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few — McCartney has spent much of her career gently pulling back the curtain on traditionally glamorous milieus to celebrate the people who create the spectacles and myths that fascinate and amaze.
McCartney cites some of her other influences as photographers Ralph Gibson (a former mentor), Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Daido Moriyama, and artist Tracey Emin. (“I’ve worked with her a few times and it’s always been inspiring how much she immerses herself in her own world,” she says of the YBA alumnus.)
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“In a way my style hasn’t changed,” she continues. “When I go back through my work, I can see that I knew what I wanted to do. As a younger woman it took me a while to get the confidence and to try, but if anything, my eye has remained the same — though I’ve obviously learned along the way.”
“Josh Made Up, London” (2004) Credit: Courtesy Mary McCartney
“Dancer’s Feet, London” (2004) Credit: Courtesy Mary McCartney
“I decided to do this series in black and white because when I look at these pictures, they look like they’re from another era,” McCartney said. “But then you can see, in photos such as ‘Cinderella Converse,’ she has all of her makeup on and a pretty little crown on her head and she’s wearing Converse trainers. A modern element to quite a traditional look.”
One photo, taken at the shared east London flat of two of her subjects, depicts a dancer’s feet resting on a stool, and exemplifies the “life off the stage” theme of the series.
“Cinderella Converse, London” (2004) Credit: Courtesy Mary McCartney
“I spent the evening with them and ended up staying the night on their spare bed,” she recalls. “One of the dancers, Victoria, put her feet up on a stool while we were chatting and settling in and I shot them quite close up. Dancers naturally point their feet — pretty much always — and there’s just so much history to see. Her feet show all the work, all the hours that she’s put in, all that pressure and pain in that beautiful and elegant position — and she was only in her early 20s. It’s interesting to be able to look at someone’s feet and tell a lot about her life.”