I first happened on Fred W. McDarrah’s work in Steven Kasher’s booth at AIPAD in 2001, before Kasher even had a public gallery space. Amongst that ocean of photographs, McDarrah’s straight ahead, black and white images immediately jumped out at me. I had not heard of McDarrah, yet there was something familiar about them, and not just the subjects. There was, to be sure, a young Dustin Hoffman at a protest rally, John Lindsay talking to a crowd, and Warhol with his Factory circle of players. But also images in bars, on the streets, and in artist studios as well. They were familiar, Kasher explained, because McDarrah was the photographer for the Village Voice. In fact, he was their first photographer, and the only staff photographer they ever had. It was McDarrah who shot most of their images from the late 50s through the 80s. And, if asked, he would say he was not making art, he was not an artist, he was a photojournalist. So, interesting photographs, but not art.
Four decades later, viewing McDarrah’s work with the distance of time, does that assessment still ring true? Is it only a somewhat interesting record of its time, or is it more than that? Is it artifact or art? What criteria should we consider when we ask what makes a photographer’s work art?
That McDarrah was a master of his technique is obvious: each photograph is clean, articulate, without areas lost in shadow or washed out. His subject is always clearly presented, whether he was taking a portrait or shooting a protest march. His camera of choice, a 35mm Nikon F2, was relatively new to photojournalism, supplanting the iconic large format Speed Graphic used by Weegee and the smaller but also popular Rolleiflex 2 1/4 inch that McDarrah had started with in the 50s. The 35mm was small, light, and able to work with high speed film that rarely need a flash, perfect for fast moving times. And although he stands off to one side to document, he is, culturally speaking, at the center of his times. He was already part of the scene enough in the 50s to hear about the Village Voice starting up and get hired, formally selling advertising, and informally as their photographer. He would shoot pictures and pitch them to the editors, and if they liked one, they’d would run it. Occasionally people would call the paper to come shoot something or someone, but most of the time McDarrah selected his own subjects.
Or sometimes selected him. People, as Warhol often did, would call him directly. McDarrah knew the artists, poets, musicians, and writers of New York intimately, he was one of them. When he shot a portrait of the artist in their studio, you can see that they are relaxed, unafraid to be themselves in front of McDarrah. When the riot at Stonewall happened, he was there the next day (he recorded the date he shot all of his images in an ongoing ledger) with the protesters. On the night the original Cedar Tavern closed in 1963, that legendary hangout for the beat poets and Abstract Expressionist painters, McDarrah was there. And because he actually knew everyone there, he also was able to subtly compose the images he took: look there, in the middle of the crowd with his unmistakable high forehead and hawk nose, is the poet Frank O’Hara.
His interests and unique vision were a perfect match for the Voice, which in turn was an active participant in arguably New York City’s most dynamically fervent moment – politically, artistically, and intellectually. Looking back, it is clear that his goal was to know everyone and everything about this special time and place, and compress it into an indelible record. Which is what any great artist does. That McDarrah didn’t think of himself as someone making art is simply irrelevant to whether his work is art or not. Just as the world is full of examples of how the reverse is also true: someone calling themselves an artist does not, unfortunately and often painfully, make what they do art.
So this distinction no longer holds. Turn of the century Paris had Eugène Atget, and much of what we know visually of the Parisian cultural milieu between the Wars is thanks to Brassai and André Kertész. For the pure pulp palpability of New York’s gritty street-life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, nothing quite beats the indelible photographic images created by Weegee with his iconic Speed Graphic and flash. And, whether you realize it or not, if you close your eyes and recall images you remember from Greenwich Village and New York City in the 60s and 70s, you are more than likely recalling one of the hundreds of photographs shot by Fred W. McDarrah. Any doubt you may have on this subject is bound to be overcome by the current McDarrah exhibition of over 140 works at Steven Kasher Gallery.