Fred McDarrah’s Visual Voice in a New Book and Show
“Fred W. McDarrah:
New York Scenes”
Sean Wilentz, Introduction
It is bittersweet that a monograph devoted to Fred W. McDarrah’s photographs is being released by Abrams so soon after the announcement of the close of The Village Voice last month. And yet “Fred W. McDarrah: New York Scenes” is a fitting and compelling visual epitaph for a photographer, publication, and ultimately a city that no longer exists.
McDarrah, who died in 2007, had a 50-year career with the paper, beginning with chronicling the art, literary, and music scenes of bohemian downtown Manhattan in the 1950s and its eventual explosion into the counterculture of the 1960s. But he kept going after that, capturing a city in constant upheaval and renewal in the following decades.
The book is accompanied by an exhibition of 100 of the artist’s vintage prints from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s at the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea. The show opened last Thursday and remains on view through Nov. 3. The photographer, who was a part-time resident of East Hampton for 25 years, will also have gallery space devoted to him as part of the Parrish Art Museum’s yearly reinstallation of its permanent collection, which will open on Nov. 11 in Water Mill. This is in addition to three more solo shows planned in New York and San Francisco.
Clearly he is having a moment.
Although McDarrah started taking pictures at 13, when he bought his first camera at the 1939 World’s Fair, it wasn’t until he joined World War II in Japan that he thought about the medium seriously. He set up a darkroom for his photos while otherwise busy training paratroopers, he told The Star in 1999. His intention after the war was to become a magazine writer, and he enrolled in New York University as a journalism student, but he also took technical courses in photography prior to that.
It was Philip Pavia, an artist who had started an artists’ gathering in the Village known as the Club, who gave McDarrah his first real assignment, taking photos of the events there and publishing them in Pavia’s related arts magazine, It Is. He captured the artists both at the Club and at play in the nearby Cedar Bar. His pictures have become some of the best known of that scene and period.
At the same time, he was meeting all of the Beat Generation poets, who were closely allied with the downtown artists of the time and participating in Club events. Soon, pictures of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac became as common in his portfolio as his photos of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.
By 1960, he was making books of those photographs with Elias Wilentz, the owner of the Eighth Street Bookshop and the father of Sean Wilentz, who wrote the introduction to the book. “The Beat Scene” and “The Artist’s World” were the result of those earlier efforts.
Around that time, McDarrah joined The Voice at the invitation of its founders. Its first issue came out in 1955. He told The Star he started out selling ads, “eventually contributing some photographs.” In time, he became its photo editor, a position he held for many years, and then, in the last years of his life, he was a consultant.
On the whole, there are relatively few posed pictures in the book and exhibition, and many of those have an air of spontaneity to them. He seems at heart a photojournalist, relying on unfolding events for subject matter, whether it’s a New Year’s Eve party at the Club in 1959 with a dazed-looking Kerouac on his way out or a Women’s Lib protest in 1970.
In the Star interview he contrasted his style of working with Mary Ellen Mark’s (who he said became much more involved with her subjects): “I’m going to take some pictures and then I’m gone.” Yet in the same article he noted that his portraits had an intimacy and openness that one can achieve only through knowing the subject well. This apparent contradiction can be reconciled in the book’s artist biography, in which writers from his estate note that he was always on the move, not stopping in one place too long for fear of missing something else.
“Many photographers would say, ‘Oh, Mr. Motherwell, can I come over and take your picture?’ But you’re not going to get anything good that way,” he said in The Star. “But if Motherwell, say, or Franz Kline knew you, then you’d go to the studio and it would be very relaxed and informal.” One look at the photographs of Kline in the book and the show (two slightly different photos from the same year), looking diminutive next to his towering paintings, but so very relaxed, and it’s clear he is correct.
His diligence and love of the Village and its arts scene helped him capture early moments of later icons. These included Al Pacino in his first Off Broadway play, Woody Allen on the microphone at the Gaslight, and Bob Dylan at Cafe Wha?
There is an amazing photo in the book of the photographer’s son as a child with Andy Warhol and Susan Hoffman, whose Factory “superstar” name was Viva, as he is in mid-wail, mouth agape and eyes squeezed shut. According to the book, Warhol was a neighbor, and when McDarrah was taking care of the boy and got an assignment, he would drop him off there because there were artist’s supplies and things to do.
All in all, both book and exhibition document a life well lived and a herculean work ethic few can match, and we are all the better for it.