Remembering Fred W. McDarrah, 1926–2007

Nat Hentoff on the man who defined the look of the Voice

For many years, Fred W. McDarrah was a key and vivid element that differentiated the Voice from other publications. Often, when I'd call him for a photograph to go with my column, he had anticipated the request and, more often than not, had it in his files. He had an omnivorous knowledge and curiosity about New York, and when he shot a subject or a scene, it was "the decisive moment."

On hearing of Fred's death, I remembered how, at Birdland, emcee Pee Wee Marquette would invent distinctive ways of introducing the musicians about to take the stand. For instance, when the utterly singular Thelonious Monk would move toward the piano, Pee Wee would herald him as "The Onliest Monk."

The onliest McDarrah was utterly tenacious on an assignment. No one could intimidate him—and, in any context, he had no compunction telling you exactly what he thought and intended. Also, his interest in a wide range of art and artists made him an expert on the city's museums, about which he often wrote and always was illuminating.

And being a character himself, Fred was drawn to uncategorizable individualists. Future historians of the Beat scene, for example, will have to turn to Fred's coverage of that movement, which emerged from the earlier "bohemian" phenomenon in New York and elsewhere.

Whatever or whomever he focused on, Fred always managed to imbue the picture with what musicians came to call "soul." I treasure the photograph that he took of me and my younger daughter, Miranda, as I was wheeling her in her carriage in Washington Square Park. Years later, when I saw it in one of his books, I sent it to Mandy. Both of us have turned to it to remember who we were then.

Although the Voice changed owners, editors, and staff several times during Fred's storied time here, he remained a fixed star—uncompromisingly McDarrah. Next year will be my 50th year here. In the years that Fred and I were colleagues, he embodied the embattled independence of this place.

And during his time at the Voice, he was a mentor to many on our photography staff—including the present resourceful photo editor, Staci Schwartz, who told me:

"Fred invented the photography department of The Village Voice. The breadth of the subject matter and the iconography of his photographs have an unparalleled intimacy and poignancy that are uniquely his own."

Within the Voice, and far outside, Fred has left a living legacy.

 
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