McCartney's muses: Collective Works

Mary McCartney is a top photographer with a new show coming up – but there's still no escaping her parents' influence, she tells Matthew Barnett

We are cosily ensconced in a private members' club in London's Soho to discuss Mary McCartney's forthcoming photographic exhibition, Collective Works, being held at the National Trust's Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire. Over a cuppa she explains that this latest exhibition feels like "exciting, proper grown-up stuff", and indeed it is. Her first major retrospective of a career that spans 17 years, the show features material mostly drawn from two previous exhibitions, notably her first solo in 2004 entitled Off Pointe, a behind-the-scenes study of the Royal Ballet, and Playing Dress Up in 2007, which reflected Mary's long career in the fashion industry.

More exciting, perhaps, is that it represents something of a milestone in her career, not least because she is preparing a book that's due out in September 2010. "It definitely shows me where I am with my photography and when I see it all together it helps me see where I want to go next. Also it's great because I meet people and get feedback. But the exhibition at Nunnington Hall is a sort of coming-of-age, definitely a key moment."

The eldest daughter of Beatle Sir Paul and his late wife Linda, Mary was born on 28 August, 1969. Previously married to television producer Alistair Donald, with whom she had two sons, her current partner is former advertising man and film-maker, Simon Aboud. They had a third son last year.

Photography is in Mary's blood. Linda was of course a celebrated photographer. Mary's first public appearance was as a baby on the cover of her father's first solo album, McCartney, peering out from his flying jacket into her mother's ever-watchful lens. Like her, Mary carries a camera around all the time and sees photography as a means of recording as well as communicating. "I love the idea of photography as diary. When I looked through my mother's photo archive I'd see four or five subjects on a single contact sheet, rather than one sheet with a single person or variations. I use it in the same way, I think, so instead of writing I'll take pictures.'

Looking at her work, her portraits in particular, one can't help but catch the echo of her mother's pictures. The freezing of candid, unrehearsed moments, a quirky smile or burst of laughter. Always an element of the unexpected, the incongruous. Those from Off Pointe are intimate and arresting. Particularly so of the dancer Sian Murphy. An early morning picture of her stretched across a bed is a perfect balance of light and shade, the dancer's arm cutting obliquely through the frame.

One of Mary's favourite portraits in the Nunnington exhibition is from Playing Dress Up. A model sits moodily absorbed in a book while surrounded by make-up artists. It's just a job. "I'm fascinated by the whole process of preparation and getting on to the stage. Like when I watch a movie, I always wonder how everyone got along, what that person looked like when they arrived in the morning. I find people intriguing and people's habits, what kind of ketchup they like to buy and what crockery they use."

I put it to her that there's something at once connected and disconnected about photography. The camera's always there between you and the world, a barrier of sorts. "Do I hide behind it? Yes, it's true in a sense. It definitely allows one to enter certain spaces in a legitimate way, situations where I might normally be embarrassed or intimidated. When you have a camera in your hand, you have a reason to be there."

Collective Works is at Nunnington Hall, near York, from 16 June to 26 July ( )