show & tell
A New Book Shows Why Camilla McGrath Was the Lens of the Party
The second half of the 20th century had its share of “It” couples— Mick and Bianca, John and Yoko, Mick and Jerry. But behind those sensational star pairings is another stratum of people who might not have received as much gossip-column ink, but who were nonetheless essential insider beacons for the social swirl of the times. Camilla and Earl McGrath were one such couple. A daughter of Italian aristocracy and a son of rough-and-tumble Wisconsinites, the two made for an unexpected and beloved match. They met in 1958 at the then–newly formed Spoleto arts festival, and for nearly five decades, entertained their friends—some of the most glamorous figures in art, music, literature, and film—in their homes on various coasts.
Earl had nine lives’ worth of occupations, including screenwriter, music producer (and eventually head of Rolling Stones Records), and art gallerist. Camilla, on the other hand, fostered one true passion for photography that she cultivated at an early age and continued for the remainder of her life. This fall, Knopf publishes Face to Face: The Photographs of Camilla McGrath, a gorgeous, jet-set testament to the delicious depth of the McGraths’ personal address book. Culled from Camilla’s photo albums, which have recently been bequeathed to the New York Public Library, the book documents the warm, relaxed intimacies of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Paloma Picasso at a birthday party for Jerry Hall in 1985; the Dunnes (that’s Joan Didion and John Gregory) at Thanksgiving in 1992; the Agnellis on their yacht; Jackie and Lee on a sisterly trip to Italy; Peter Beard in the Hamptons; Harrison Ford chatting up Carrie Fisher in a doorway; and the carousing of everyone from New York’s Frank O’Hara to Los Angeles’s Sharon Tate.
Examining Camilla’s tender, unassuming portraits, one doesn’t get the sense of a predatory paparazzo behind the lens, but rather a close friend shooting someone in a moment of letting their guard down. These are larger-than-life figures brought down to coffee-table size. Camilla died in 2007; Earl (who jokingly called his countess wife “the Nazi of the Nikon”) followed her in 2016, and yet the party, at least in these photos, lives on.