Fred McDarrah: Save the Village

BY Sarah Schmerler, February 4, 2014

Fred W. McDarrah, Bob Dylan in Sheridan Square Park NYC, January 22, 1965. ©Estate of Fred W. McDarrah, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery

Bob Dylan squints in the sun as he sits, cross-legged and pensive, on a bench in Sheridan Square; Bob Rauschenberg, wearing a trench coat, grabs a quick smoke in an abandoned lot; and Andy Warhol, clad in a leather jacket, takes a picture of “us” on a sunny sidewalk outside the offices of the Village Voice. To be accurate, Warhol isn’t taking a picture of us, but of Fred McDarrah, and it’s a nice bit of solipsism. Celebrity can be over-done, but not in this smartly installed show of the under-sung Village Voice photographer’s oeuvre on view at Steven Kasher Gallery through March 8. Seen in aggregate, what lingers is the humanity in every scene, no matter how famous its subject.

McDarrah, prolific and highly organized, kept a thorough archive of his work from the 1950s to the 1980s (some 35,000 prints), and his images have graced many a Voice cover. That said, there has yet to be a comprehensive exhibit devoted to him. This show marks McDarrah’s largest survey to date, and despite the fact that there are more than 140 prints on view, not a single image feels superfluous. Kasher shrewdly clusters the vintage gelatin-silver prints into loose typologies around the entire gallery space: full-body shots of folks like Ed Koch and Bella Abzug marching; interior group scenes with a theatrical edge (Warhol’s Factory actresses–one topless — in a green room); and perhaps best, candid portraits and head shots that are just plain fun to look at (a somewhat agog Fred Trump; a blithe Nicky Barnes, Harlem drug kingpin turned informer, outside the Federal Courthouse). McDarrah developed his own film and made prints in the West Village apartment where he lived for many years, and the call of the sidewalks outside is almost palpable.

Fred W. McDarrah, Women of the World Unite, Women’s Liberation Demonstration, August 26, 1970. ©Estate of Fred W. McDarrah, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery

My favorite shots focus not on individuals but anonymous folks and their hopes, like  “Women’s Liberation Demonstration, August 26, 1970.” The latter gives us a sea of women raising their fists in power salute. The “bunting” of a WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE! banner isn’t pinned; its scalloped edges are the result of so many grabbing hands. It’s ideas that make up change in a society. Not charismatic individuals, but a certain collective spirit. Somehow, McDarrah makes a portrait of that, too.