The Voice of the Village: Fred W. McDarrah Photographs @Museum of the City of New York

JTF (just the facts): A total of 132 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against colored walls (and divided partitions) in a series of rooms on the third floor of the museum. The images were taken between the mid 1950s and 1970 and are divided into thematic sections as follows:

  • (Streets): 9 black and white photographs
  • The Artist’s World: 12 black and white photographs
  • The Folk Scene: 5 black and white photographs, newspaper spreads in vitrine
  • The Beats: 7 black and white photographs (exterior wall), 13 black and white photographs (interior walls), newspaper spreads in vitrine, selected audio clips on speakers
  • Warhol and Pop Art: 14 black and white photographs, newspaper spreads in vitrine
  • Politics: 15 black and white photographs
  • The War in Vietnam: 19 black and white photographs, newspaper spreads in vitrine
  • Rock and Roll: 9 black and white photographs
  • Liberation Movements: 29 black and white photographs

The exhibition was curated by Sean Corcoran and Sara K. Spink. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: New York is an ever changing city with thousands of untold stories, and until the Village Voice was founded in 1955, the real story of what has happening in Greenwich Village, and more broadly below 14th Street, wasn’t really being covered by the major newspapers. As the first alternative newsweekly in the city, the Village Voice filled in that gap, and by 1967, it was the bestselling weekly newspaper in America.

Much of the Voice‘s success came from its presence – it was the firsthand witness to much of the cultural tumult that took place downtown in the second half of the 20th century, and as the primary photographer (and later photo editor) for the paper, Fred McDarrah and his camera provided the critical visual record of what was going on. His photographs were grounded in the idea of the Village as a unique local place, as a vibrant neighborhood filled with people thinking, creating, and doing exciting things – in the arts, in politics, and in civic activism.

This exhibit surveys McDarrah’s work in roughly the first 15 years of the paper’s existence – from 1955 to 1970 – and takes a decidedly historical approach. Divided into thematic sections, the show is more centered on the content of the photographs (who is in them and what they document) than on making a case for McDarrah’s particular artistry or eye as a photographer. Aside from a small handful of images of various streets and storefronts, the vast majority of the pictures feature people, many of them now famous (but less so then). The edit is a reminder of the kind of images that drive a newspaper, and of the personalities and human interest angles that give life to a story.

The 1950s and 1960s were an energetic time in New York’s art world, with various groups of artists pushing Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and other movements forward. While McDarrah did attend openings and other formal events (leading to images of Andy Warhol standing with his Brillo Boxes and his floating Silver Clouds), his more memorable photographs capture artists at home, in their studios, at intimate art performances, or out in the bars and cafes hanging out with each other. Willem De Kooning stands on his front stoop, Jasper Johns plays skee-ball at Dillon’s Bar, and crowds of artists gather at the Cedar Tavern. His pictures pile up into a who’s who of the downtown art scene – Kline, Rauschenberg, Krasner, Motherwell, Neel, Cage, Hesse, Kusama, Schneemann, and others – McDarrah’s photographs providing an intimate personal backdrop to the revolutions taking place in the art itself.

The same can be said for McDarrah’s pictures of writers and musicians. He tracked Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and others to the dark clubs of the burgeoning folk scene, attended concerts by the Doors, the Velvet Underground, and Janis Joplin, and hung out in the recording studio with Jimi Hendrix. He similarly trailed the Beat poets to impromptu readings in Washington Square Park, and then went inside for more poetry and animated discussion in dingy halls and living rooms, documenting Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Mailer, Ginsberg, and others talking, reciting, and generally holding court.

While this bubbling artistic and cultural melting pot certainly kept McDarrah busy, the local political scene was equally active. As the neighborhood paper of record, the Voice followed local government officials at all levels (district, city council, and mayoral), not only at election time, but during the regular flow of daily life. McDarrah attended rallies and street protests, candidate speeches and photo ops, school strikes and sit-ins, and countless other forms of participation and resistance, capturing leaders and anonymous citizens with seemingly equal interest.

The war in Vietnam brought many more people into the fray of Village politics, and McDarrah was there to take note. He documented Martin Luther King Jr. making speeches, Allen Ginsburg wearing an Uncle Sam top hat, and countless protests, parades, and flag-draped rallies in the streets, from hippies and women burning draft cards to the Hard Hat Riot of construction workers supporting the war. The Village was also the setting for a variety of liberation movement activities, and McDarrah’s images tell those stories with equal fervor. He was there with Gloria Steinem and Susan Sontag at rallies in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and other feminist causes. He witnessed Black Panther strikes and speeches by Malcolm X. And he made pictures at the Stonewall Inn and drag shows, and followed along at Earth Day celebrations. He seems to have been not only present at most of the notable historic events that took place in the neighborhood in those years, he had his camera ready to single out the key visual moments for posterity.

Time-capsule exhibits like this one work hard to transport us back to a specific place and time, and this one delivers on recreating the swirled atmosphere of creativity and change in the Village during the 50s and 60s. The best of McDarrah’s photographs not only capture the faces of the notable figures, but they surround them with the rich context of the neighborhood – they invite us into the scene, rather than overtly reminding us we are outsiders or onlookers. It is this welcoming intimacy that sets McDarrah’s photojournalism apart; his pictures have the up-close immediacy of reportage, but the comfortable mood of local participation. Through his pictures, we see that the Village wasn’t just a place on a map in New York city, it was a very special confluence of humanity that often came together in flashes of brilliance.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices. Fred McDarrah does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, and his work has little secondary market history. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist’s archive site (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Fred W. McDarrah, Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)

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