Andy Warhol Taking a Photo in Front of Village Voice Office, Sheridan Square, September 9, 1968
By Helen A. Harrison
“I was a groupie at heart,” Fred W. McDarrah confessed, “and my camera was my ticket of admission.” It was also his meal ticket. As The Village Voice’s picture editor, and for a long time the only staff photographer, Fred (who died in 2007 at 81) made his living documenting the downtown scene for more than four decades. The result is a huge body of work, estimated at some 35,000 images, from which a sampling is on view through March 8 at the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea. While it’s a small percentage of Fred’s total output, there are over 100 photos, many of which will be familiar to readers of his books on Greenwich Village, the art world, the gay pride movement, and the Beat Generation. In fact the exhibition’s title, “Save the Village,” is drawn from a cover photo on his 1963 paperback, Greenwich Village, showing the demolition of the sculptor Arnold Bergier’s studio, which had those words painted on its façade. Fifty-four years ago, when that building was torn down, the locals were already mourning the imminent demise of their historic neighborhoods, cheap lofts and far-out life styles.
Fred, a Brooklyn boy, migrated to Manhattan after his Army service and studied journalism on the GI Bill at NYU, when Washington Square was, in his words, “the focus of intellectual and cultural activity.” After graduating in 1954, he snagged a job as an ad salesman for the fledgling Voice, and soon became its photographer-in-residence. Starting with the beatniks, he chronicled the evolution of New York’s bohemia, as well as its surrounding milieu. He hit the street just as the counterculture was warming up the Cold War climate, and the alternative press was providing a forum for innovations in art, theater, music, writing and film. For those of us who came of age in the city during those years, Fred’s images are like the pictures in a family album. For those who weren’t there (or were and can’t remember), they conjure a time when, quoting Fred again, “painting, poetry, avant-garde performances and Off-Broadway theater were in full swing — everybody was creating something.”
The statements I’m quoting were written for an exhibition of Fred’s Greenwich Village photographs at the Pollock-Krasner House in 1990. It was the first show I organized there. When Fred wasn’t prowling the downtown byways, he and his wife Gloria retreated to a cottage on Three Mile Harbor Road, so they were the museum’s not-too-distant neighbors. That was my excuse to prevail on him to share some of his favorite pictures. He was a pleasure to work with, patiently sorting and selecting material and carefully identifying the characters — some famous or notorious, others now obscure — captured in his iconic images. Several of them, and many more, populate the current exhibition. Their habitat ranges from the Cedar Bar, the Club, the Living Theater, the White Horse Tavern and Café Wha? to Judson Church, the Factory and the Stonewall Inn, as well as the anti-war rallies, be-ins, Happenings and demonstrations that mark the Village as a legendary locus of political, social and artistic ferment.
Fred never claimed that he was making art, but it can’t be denied that some of his images rise above reportage. Jack Kerouac’s impassioned reading from “On the Road,” gesturing as if to embrace the whole audience, illuminates a dingy loft more brightly than the glaring light bulb overhead. A performance by the Velvet Underground casts the band as stark silhouettes against a projection of the singer Nico’s eye — an appropriately surreal backdrop for their visionary music. And a shot of a gay power rally, in which a banner obscures the marchers’ faces, turns their singular embraces into universal gestures. There are also outstanding portraits of individuals, among them a gleeful Yayoi Kusama flashing her trademark dots; a trenchcoated Robert Rauschenberg lurking in an alley; Andy Warhol photographing Fred, as if each inveterate shutterbug were winking at the other; a grizzled Robert Moses, whose plan for a lower Manhattan expressway prompted bitter and ultimately successful opposition by Village denizens; Allen Ginsberg in an Uncle Sam hat, patriotically protesting the Vietnam War; and Bob Dylan earnestly saluting the camera. No doubt about it, Fred was in the right places at the right times, even as the times they were a-changin’.