The City

The First Contact Sheet of the Counterculture

Fred McDarrah’s photographs defined downtown New York.

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It was a typical Village Voice front page from 1967: Over the left two columns, a street portrait of the “dean of American pacifists,” A.J. Muste; over the right two, an action shot of police arresting Charlotte Moorman, the Juilliard-trained cellist who was a must-see on the downtown art and music scene — not least because she sometimes performed nude.

Both photographs were snapped by the Voice’s always-on-the-scene Fred W. McDarrah.

The Voice of the Village: Fred W. McDarrah Photographs,” featuring many of the Voice staffer’s up-close-and-personal shots of the cultural and political luminaries of the 1960s and ’70s, opens today at the Museum of the City of New York.

As we wrote in an earlier Voice archive piece, “If reporters are charged with providing ‘the first rough draft of history,’ the ground-level, street-smart photojournalist McDarrah gave us some of the first contact sheets of the counterculture.”

It is hard to open one of the green-bound Voice archive volumes from those tumultuous decades and not see, after a few turns of the pages, a “Voice: Fred W. McDarrah” credit line. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, McDarrah served in the Army with the occupation forces in Japan after World War II. When he returned to New York, he began photographing the downtown demimonde, which he termed, “The most colorful community of interesting people, fascinating places, and dynamic ideas.”

In the August 23, 1962, issue of the paper, it was official. Fred W. McDarrah had become the Village Voice’s staff photographer. The announcement appeared on page 2 of that issue, surrounded by ads for galleries, bookshops, bars, and health-food stores.

McDarrah’s name now appeared on the masthead, which was on page 4, surrounded by letters to the editor about the Voice’s coverage of the suicide of Marilyn Monroe and the trial of the murderous Nazi bureaucrat Adolph [sic] Eichmann.

McDarrah, the native New Yorker, could be found on the spot, all over the city.

His main subject, however, remained the creative vanguard of downtown, including a compelling 1966 portrait of LeRoi Jones, the poet, theater director, and activist later known as Amiri Baraka.

The tenor of the times McDarrah was capturing can also be felt on these pages in ads for jazz innovators Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, as well as in calls to redeem war bonds as a way to protest war in Vietnam.

McDarrah also had entrée to studios, galleries, and museums all over town, capturing the avant-garde as it came into being.

McDarrah’s photos document the changes in the gender makeup of the moment — even if the accompanying captions weren’t yet up to speed. As his striking portrait of the seminal feminist sculptor Eva Hesse made clear, she was not having her first “one-man” show at the Fischbach gallery.

Although McDarrah started working for the Voice after the heyday of the abstract expressionists, he knew many of the artists who had made post-war New York the cultural capital of the world. When the painter Franz Kline died from heart failure at the age of 51, McDarrah had only to dig through his extensive archives to create a visual tribute that included Kline at work in his studio, as well as at play with some of his friends, including fellow artists Willem de Kooning and Alex Katz.

McDarrah also tracked the most powerful politicians of the day with his camera. In the spring of 1967, he was along as Robert F. Kennedy toured tenements on the Lower East Side. When McDarrah framed New York’s junior senator in his lens, something in the foreground cast a blur across the bottom of the frame, while a crooked portrait of Jesus crowned with thorns provided perfect compositional counterpoint to Kennedy’s downcast gaze. It is an astonishingly powerful photo in its own right, but a little more than a year later it became an elegiac cultural icon when it was printed on the Voice’s front page shortly after RFK’s assassination.

The first Voice issue of 1969 commemorated both the tragedies and triumphs of the year just past, with McDarrah photos of murdered leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, along with a straightforward shot of copies of The New York Times, each featuring a defining headline, including a report of American astronauts flying “around the moon only 70 miles from surface; see ‘vast, forbidding place.’ ”

Inside, a double-page spread of McDarrah images offered a look back at the movers and shakers of 1968, including Andy Warhol, who had been shot and almost killed in June of that year. The caption reads “Warhol found out it was for real,” a reference no doubt to a headline in the September 12 issue of the Voice that quoted the pop maestro after his recovery: “I thought everyone was kidding.”

Another McDarrah shot captured a Republican power broker in mid-spiel above the caption, “Roy Cohn denies everything.” Whichever Voice editor came up with that phrase half a century ago could never have imagined that one of Cohn’s most slavish disciples, Donald Trump, would one day be president of the United States.

In those years McDarrah’s photos were also used for Voice promotional purposes. The publisher no doubt figured that an exclusive picture of the Fab Four might be one way to get New Yorkers to subscribe to the paper.

 

By 1976 McDarrah appeared on the masthead as the Voice’s picture editor. In the November 22 issue, a reader wrote in complaining that the photographs in the paper were not sexy enough.

Also that year, McDarrah was one of five jurors for a Village Voice photography contest that drew more than 2,000 “generally strong submissions.”

A few years later, Amiri Baraka was arrested on 8th Street amid disputed circumstances. It was apparently no problem for McDarrah to dive into his archive and find a wholehearted portrait of the poet/provocateur by press time. (In 1980 Baraka turned to the pages of the Voice to pen a front-page feature headlined “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.” McDarrah’s collection was again plumbed for photos of the literary demimonde — watch this space for a full reposting of that article in the near future).

At any given moment New York City is at the center of a constellation of universes. Fred McDarrah was fortunate to be on the scene during an era when the downtown cosmos was burning exceptionally bright.

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