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Mike McCartney's Liverpool Life

24 May to 28 September 2003

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

Man holding up camera to face, with an image of his right eye appearing in the lens

Me and 4th camera (with 3 eyes!), copyright Mike McCartney

Liverpool in the 1960s was a remarkable place to be growing-up – an eclectic mix of ordinary working class family life, home-grown talent, comedy and popular culture, and of course the focal point of Beatlemania. For the young Mike McCartney it was a golden opportunity to perfect his photographic skills.

Mike McCartney's Liverpool Life was an unusual assortment of photographs reflecting Mike's sense of fun, his experimental approach and his distinct role in Liverpool's 1960s renaissance.

From pictures of 'passing muzzos' (or musicians) to intimate portraits from inside the family home, the exhibition reveals Mike's personal and often alternative perspective on the city.

Over the years, Mike McCartney's photographs have earned him much respect and admiration. He has had exhibitions at the Walker Art Gallery and Merseyside Maritime Museum in his hometown of Liverpool, while the National Portrait Gallery bought some of his pictures for its permanent collection. Q magazine featured two of his pictures in a feature called The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Photographs of All Time.

The self-taught photographer began modestly, using books from Allerton library to get tips and inspiration. He printed his photographs in a home-made darkroom, hanging them out to dry with hairgrips – perhaps as he was working as a ladies' hairdresser at the time!

Later, his extraordinary and diverse career gave him unrivalled access to some of the greatest rock 'n' roll stars who played at venues like the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton and Liverpool's world famous Cavern Club. He captured magical moments from the era, from Little Richard on stage to Graham Nash (the Hollies, Crosby Stills and Nash) snoozing on a train. The Beatles manager Brian Epstein even nicknamed him 'Flash Harry' on account of the flash gun he used for his live pictures.

However, it is Mike's eye for reinventing the familiar that really makes this exhibition shine. A classic example is the picture of the iconic Liver bird, reduced to a slightly-menacing beak peaking out over the edge of the building. Believe it or not, Mike also wrote the TV theme tune to the 'Liver Birds' – another example of his diverse work, which ranges from writing children's books to advisory roles in the heritage sector.

In the sixties Mike McGear (as he was then known) was very much at the centre of the Merseybeat scene as one of The Scaffold. This satirical and humorous act that topped the charts with the unforgettable hits like 'Lily the Pink' and 'Liverpool Lou'. The group, featuring poet Roger McGough and Tiswas' John Gorman, went on to host their own children's TV show, 'Score with the Scaffold'.

Mike also wrote the witty ditty, 'Thank U Very Much' that was later popularised by the Cadbury's Roses advertising campaign. In fact the tune came to him spontaneously when he telephoned his brother Paul to thank him for the Nikon camera he bought as a Christmas present in 1966. It made the top ten for The Scaffold the following year. The camera can be seen in the picture 'Me and 4th camera (with 3 eyes!)'.

There is something very special about the pictures that Mike took at home in Forthlin Road, a property now owned by the National Trust because of its unique history. The exhibition is accompanied by quotes from the photographer, who reveals the stories behind these gems, from his father's great fondness for playing piano at family parties, to numerous pictures of his first car, a Ford Classic. The pride in his new vehicle fails to be outshined even by George Harrison who 'as a working class lad' insisted that Mike take a picture of him with his new Jaguar!

Even the most ordinary photographs in Mike's portfolio have unusual tales behind them. For example, a seemingly normal family picture of Uncle Albert and Auntie Milly is called '2 number 1s' because both of them were mentioned in number one hits. Uncle Albert was immortalised in the Wings song, while Auntie Milly 'ran willy nilly' in The Scaffold's 'Lily the Pink'!

The Forthlin Road pictures were a great primary source of information for the National Trust when they were working on the restoration of the property and Mike played an important role in advising them about its original appearance.

However, his interest in the cultural sector goes beyond his family home. He has also worked on the Board of Management for University of Liverpool's Institute of Popular Music and as a Trustee of the E Chambre Hardman Trust, dedicated to the protecting the legacy of the leading photographer.

Mike also has a close relationship with National Museums Liverpool, supporting many of our events and having been commissioned to take a portfolio of photographs for us in the past.

This exhibition came to the Museum of Liverpool Life after a successful spell in the Museum of Alberta, Canada and before going on to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

To mark the occasion Mike personally rewrote the captions to go with the photographs, with amusing anecdotes about the people and places in them who have shaped his remarkable story. In Mike's own words,

"It's the story behind the story, of that magic era".