Fred W. McDarrah, 1926-2007

Veteran Village Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah died in his sleep at home in Greenwich Village early Tuesday morning. He was 81.

Over a 50-year span, McDarrah documented the rise of the Beat Generation, the city’s postmodern art movement, its off-off-Broadway actors, troubadours, politicians, agitators and social protests.

Fred captured Jack Kerouac frolicking with women at a New Year’s bash in 1958, Andy Warhol adjusting a movie-camera lens in his silver-covered factory, and Bob Dylan offering a salute of recognition outside Sheridan Square near the Voice’s old office.

Fred W. McDarrah, April 1978
photo: Janie Eisenberg
Fred W. McDarrah, April 1978

Not just a social chronicler, McDarrah was a great photo-journalist. He photographed the still-smoldering ruins of the Weather Underground bomb factory on W. 12th Street. His unerring eye for gesture and detail caught lawyer Roy Cohn whispering what appeared to be tough orders in the ear of a young Donald Trump.

For years, McDarrah was the Voice's only photographer and, for decades, he ran the Voice’s photo department, where he helped train dozens of young photographers, including James Hamilton, Sylvia Plachy, Robin Holland and Marc Asnin. His mailbox was simply marked "McPhoto."

An exhibit of McDarrah’s photos of artists presented last year by the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea was hailed by The New York Times as “a visual encyclopedia of the era’s cultural scene.” It included candid shots of Janis Joplin, artist Jasper Johns, and avant-garde artist Charlotte Moorman.

Wayne Barrett Remembers McDarrah

In the days when politicians routinely let reporters and photographers inside their fundraising extravaganzas, Fred McDarrah never missed a fat cat with a fork or a knife in his hand. He got his camera right under their double chins. If they waved him away in anger, he took an extra shot. He circled the world of New York politics with me for two decades, responding to every brusque rejection with an irresistible charm and a grin wider than his lens. It wasn't just that Fred loved to photo the New York predator class and their political prey, he understood who they were and what they wanted. He collected names and public price tags as well as pictures. I remember standing with him in the rain outside Studio 54 for the birthday party of that infamous fixer Roy Cohn as we rushed toward every opening limo door, squeezing the story out of the street. I remember stakeouts that dragged on for hours and his edgy exuberance, a kid-like quality he carried with his camera into his 70s. Fred loved his town and his craft and his era and his family, and he has left a legacy of prints unparalleled in our time.

J. Hoberman Remembers McDarrah

Like anyone who ever looked at the Village Voice during the ‘60s, I was familiar with Fred McDarrah's world—long before I met him. Fred spent that decade (and three more) documenting the city’s be-ins, demonstrations, peace marches, happenings, free concerts, coffee-house readings, loft performances, jazz bars, and underground movie emporia, not to mention the flotsam and jetsam of Sheridan Square, Bleecker Street, Avenue C, St Marks Place, and the Bowery. He was a real newspaper guy and a genuine historian of his times. His street and studio portraits of downtown artists, avant-garde luminaries, local pols and boho celebs were often definitive.

Fred was a feisty, wiry Son of Brooklyn who knew how to get to the front of a crowd, hold onto his light, and make the most of any given situation. In 1960, he invented a sort of human catering service called Rent-a-Beatnik. Did I say he was feisty? Fred wrote irate letters to the Voice editor both before and after he became the paper’s staff photographer. (A proud populist, he always took regular issue with film critic Andrew Sarris’s annual ten best lists.) Fred was free with friendly counsel and fiercely protective of his work, as I learned when I, as Village Voice greenhorn, I asked him on behalf of an avant-garde filmmaker friend, if she could use one of his best known photographs in her movie. Fred lost his smile and gave me an earful. (I considered it career advice.) And he was right, the work he furnished the Voice for pennies was only going to grow more valuable. Fred may have been a terrific journalist but, as he’d have been the first to tell you, he wasn’t a hippie.

 
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