Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Fred W. McDarrah (1926-2007): Let Us Now Praise Grumpy Men





This webblog is turning into a catalog of the grumpiest but most creative folks on the planet – not exactly my goal when I started out, but I guess I’ve worked with a lot of hard-as-nails types—who all turn out to be secret softies. Or at least so I like to remember them.

Nor was it my intention to write about photographers in particular, since most of the people I’ve known are musicians or writers. But still the recent passing of two of New York’s hardest boiled cameramen—David Gahr this year and previously Fred W. McDarrah—has made me realize how important these difficult, endearing men were to me.

Fred was another one of those crusty New Yorkers who scared away the common folk by yelling at them over the phone. His phone was a heavy, black rotary model – a relic of the ‘50s – but only such a well-made machine could take the abuse of Fred’s righteous indignation. He was always angry about some mistreatment – how his work was undervalued; how he had foolishly settled for a lower fee than he deserved; how you needed to go back to your publisher and beg, borrow, or steal the extra bucks that he needed otherwise he couldn’t possibly keep working with you. The higher he held you in esteem, the more he enjoyed spinning your wheels, and every encounter was a death-match test of your ability to recognize his worth.

A little more panache would have landed Fred a higher standing in the world of journalistic photography. He might have even ended up working for a slick magazine, except the idea of photographing to someone else’s agenda would probably have nauseated him. Fred started out selling ads for the Village Voice when it was still a neighborhood news-sheet; he worked his way up to be Photo Editor, which meant he pretty much covered all the angles—from politics and police work to the wondrous strange world of the Village art scene—while also training (in his abusive-but-loving way) a cadre of younger photographers.

I met Fred through the author John Gruen. I had edited collections of Gruen’s dance and art interviews, and he suggested that I might like to reprint his first book, The New Bohemia, which included an ample selection of Fred’s photographs. Gruen was the polar opposite of Fred; his apartment was a carefully presented stage set, with art nouveau wallpaper and velvety chairs. He had a refined sense of being refined, and liked to name drop the various artistic celebrities whom he had profiled and befriended. Fred was a street tough compared to John’s cloistered intellect, and the two would never have worked together except that Fred was assigned to take photos for an article John wrote for the Herald Tribune, on the new artists of the East Village, which became the basis for the book. Fred’s photos were badly cropped in the original, and he was not given equal billing to Gruen, and all these hard feelings had been festering for decades when I sheepishly called him and asked for permission to reprint his work.

After the ritual yelling that was the beginning of any true friendship with Fred, it took months of delicate negotiation to actually get him to participate in the new edition, and I had to show him along the way that I would respect his work and properly present it. Once I had won his trust, however, Fred was ready to produce dozens of books based on his work, always with the steadying influence of his wife, Gloria, who often also authored the text to go with his pictures.

Fred seemed to soften over the years – or maybe I became more open – and although he still enjoyed arguing – what New Yorker doesn’t? – the arguments became more like banter, less like shock therapy. He could even relax and recall some of those moments that made him the quintessential New York photographer. Once, we were meeting with Art D’Lughoff to negotiate for a signing for one of Fred’s book at Art’s famous Village Gate nightclub. D’Lughoff was sniffing for money to underwrite the event—which I didn’t have—while Fred was vainly trying to get him to provide something for nearly nothing—which Art wasn’t about to do. Nonetheless, there was a certain camaraderie among these veterans of New York’s art scene.

“Remember that time Norman Mailer threw up on you,” Art asked Fred with a big grin.

“Those were the days,” Fred replied, pleased to be associated in any way with Mailer, and the excitement and tumult that defined New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

2 comments:

Perry said...

I'm guessing that David (see the May 27, 2008 posting) and Fred knew each other (and sound as if they might have had the same crusty genetics) having worked in New York during the same rich period in pop culture history. Someone out there has to, one of these days, mount a maybe sort of "dual exhibition" on these two figures who no doubt have/had a huge archive of great material which the world would love to see "properly" presented. Somehow I guess that their images would compliment each other and also inspire younger photographers (and others) to (as they say in the movie) "find their passion and make it happen". David and Fred obviously did find it. They were experts at it. It's evident in their photographs and aside from the great work, both should receive the praise and admiration which they might not have during their lifetimes as two both great artists and documentarians. These were two giants in the world of photography that a large portion of the photographic "art" world did not know existed and that should now receive their long overlooked due. I'm only sorry that I was mostly unfamiliar with their work until they were gone. They sure would have inspired me. Actually, they do.

Perry said...

I'm guessing that David (see the May 27, 2008 posting) and Fred knew each other (and sound as if they might have had the same crusty genetics) having worked in New York during the same rich period in pop culture history. Someone out there has to, one of these days, mount a maybe sort of "dual exhibition" on these two figures who no doubt have/had a huge archive of great material which the world would love to see "properly" presented. Somehow I guess that their images would compliment each other and also inspire younger photographers (and others) to (as they say in the movie) "find their passion and make it happen". David and Fred obviously did find it. They were experts at it. It's evident in their photographs and aside from the great work, both should receive the praise and admiration which they might not have during their lifetimes as two both great artists and documentarians. These were two giants in the world of photography that a large portion of the photographic "art" world did not know existed and that should now receive their long overlooked due. I'm only sorry that I was unfamiliar with their work until they were gone. They sure would have inspired me. Actually, they do.

Perry