Fred W. Mcdarrah

'Village Voice' photographer


Frederick William McDarrah, photographer: born Brooklyn, New York 5 November 1926; married (two sons); died New York 6 November 2007.

Fred W. McDarrah preferred to say that he was on the periphery, "just a reporter-photographer" of all that happened in New York during the second half of the 20th century. In fact he was at the heart of it. His images – of Jack Kerouac and the Beat generation, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Susan Sontag, a campaigning Bobby Kennedy and the first gay pride activists – defined the city, its artists, politicians and freaks throughout the 50-odd years he clicked his shutter.

McDarrah was the leading graphic light behind The Village Voice, the alternative weekly newspaper which started in the city's arty Greenwich Village but became a national institution. He started as its only photographer, became head of its photo desk as the paper grew and was still working for the Voice when he died, having trained many successful photographers including James Hamilton.

It was McDarrah who took one of the first photographs of Bob Dylan in New York, the still little-known young man from Minnesota blowing his harmonica to accompany the singer Karen Dalton in the Bitter End club in 1962. Three years later, McDarrah captured an image of Dylan, by now famous, saluting the photographer in an unusually respectful greeting in Sheridan Square Park. The latter image has appeared in many books and exhibitions on Dylan. While the Voice's writer Nat Hentoff was credited with being one of the first to recognise Dylan's talent and potential, McDarrah's accompanying photographs helped launch the phenomenon of the young protest singer with the tousled hair, drainpipe trousers and high-heeled boots.

McDarrah's images not only helped turn The Village Voice into a leading alternative player in journalism – a timely challenge to the staid reports of The New York Times – but chronicled the era like no-one else. He photographed Bobby Kennedy visiting a New York slum on the Lower East Side; when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, the Voice ran the picture – JFK's brother on a ghetto staircase, passing an image of Christ in a crown of thorns – across the top of its front page.

In February 1959, McDarrah photographed Jack Kerouac reading extracts from On the Road to fellow writers in Greenwich Village. The picture of Kerouac, standing on a small ladder, his arms outstretched in a crucifix-like pose, is considered the iconic image of the Beat artist. McDarrah had captured the writer a couple of months earlier, on New Year's Eve, partying inside a New York night club with Allen Ginsberg. McDarrah also took a celebrated photograph of Ginsberg, with the poet in a Stars-and-Stripes hat during an anti-Vietnam peace march in 1966.

A McDarrah picture of two smiling, topless, tattooed gay men became a lasting image of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, during which police clashed with activists after raiding the largely gay Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. McDarrah and his son Timothy later published a well-received book of photographs, Gay Pride (1994).

As his subjects noted, Fred McDarrah seemed to be everywhere, though never intrusive. He photographed Fidel Castro addressing the United Nations; he was at the Beatles' press conference in the Warwick Hotel on 22 August 1966 after they first hit the US (his studied photographs of the event continue to resonate perhaps more than the group's self-conscious, nervous words); and he gained rare access to many artists' studios, including Warhol's "Factory". Yet, as he was always at pains to point out, he never became part of "the scene"; he believed his role was to chronicle it from the outside. He captured his subjects more through charm and persuasion than invitation. And when he got rejected or kicked out, he made doubly sure he came away with a shot.

On a whim, he once put an ad in the Voice, urging readers to "Rent Genuine Beatniks – badly groomed but brilliant (male and female)" to liven up parties. He meant the ad as a joke but the paper was inundated with requests and McDarrah enlisted artist friends, and sometimes beatniks off the streets of Greenwich Village, to "add a little colour" to dinner parties around the Big Apple in return for a free meal.

Fred William McDarrah was born in Brooklyn in 1926. He served as a young paratrooper towards the end of the Second World War and stayed on as part of American occupation forces in Japan, taking pictures whenever he had time. Under the GI Bill to aid returning soldiers, he studied journalism at New York University, graduating in 1954. He joined the recently launched Village Voice as a salesman in 1959 but shortly afterwards moved into news and photographs.

McDarrah published more than a dozen books based on his photographs. Among them is Kerouac and Friends: a beat generation album (2002, co-authored by his son Timothy McDarrah). His book Anarchy, Protest and Rebellion (2003) uses his pictures to trace the 1960s in the United States, from the arrival of the Beatles, through the Civil Rights movement and the Stonewall gay riots and the influence of Warhol's Factory to the trauma of the 1968 Democratic National Convention when brutal attacks on anti-war demonstrators stunned the nation, and the catharsis of Woodstock the following year.

His photographs have been displayed in numerous exhibitions. Last year, to mark his 80th birthday, the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York mounted an exhibition, "Artists and Writers of the 60s and 70s," featuring more than 100 of McDarrah's photographs. A review in The New York Times described the exhibition as "a visual encyclopaedia of the era's cultural scene. Mr McDarrah was everywhere and seems to have known everyone who lived in or passed through New York, capturing them all on film."

Phil Davison

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