Shooting a Revolution: Robert R. McElroy, Photographer of the Happenings
Erik La Prade – who has interviewed many of the artists and photographers involved – profiles the man at the heart of Pace Gallery’s Happenings exhibition.
Between 1959 and 1962 Robert R. McElroy was virtually the only professional photographer attending and taking photos of downtown happenings at venues like the Judson Memorial Church, the Reuben Gallery and the Green Gallery. He took thousands of black-and-white and color photographs of these early avant garde artists’ performance, although less than a hundred have been published and republished in books and anthologies. The recent show at Pace provided an opportunity for an in-depth look at this historically vital photographer. But what of the man himself?
McElroy was born in Chicago on January 1, 1928 and grew up poor in a working-class Irish Catholic Depression household. He developed his interest in photography at Lane Technical High School where he joined the camera club. He left school to enlist in the Army, but only after the recruiter guaranteed that he would be assigned to the Still and Motion Picture unit. He was stationed in Vienna as a cameraman in the 63rd Signal Corp movie team, making short films for the occupying forces, like a documentary on the Salzburg Orchestra. He returned home in 1948 and received his high school degree, but was recalled for the Korean War and sent to a school for combat motion picture and still cameramen. He was never sent abroad, but it is clear that this very specific training informed his photographs of the happenings, making them as lively and energetic as the performances themselves.
Despite this training in filmmaking it seems he was committed to still photography. When he enrolled at Ohio University on the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1952 their photography program, headed by Clarence White, Jr., was one of only two in the country at that time. Ohio proved his first step on his road to New York, not only because of the technical training but because of the fellow photographers he met there, especially Paul Fusco, a fellow G.I..
McElroy and Fusco also met a group of younger students who shared similar attitudes and interests in art, photography: I.C. [Chuck] Rapoport, a future freelance photographer for Life and Paris Match; Adger Cowans, future assistant to Gordon Parks; Don Moser, a Life photographer and later editor of Smithsonian Magazine; and Jim Dine who joined the group when he transferred from University of Cincinnati in 1955.
Their experience as veterans set Fusco and McElroy apart from younger members of this creative group. Pat Sayer (Fusco’s future wife) recalls how “Mac and Paul spent hours and hours in the darkrooms and studios of the photo department. In fact, Mac didn’t really hang out with the rest of us very much.” McElroy’s “lone-wolf personality” came through: “Mac was far too anti-social to sit and schmooze with the crowd that was there…. Like the other veterans there on the G. I. Bill, he would usually run out of money toward the end of each month and I remember Paul saying that Mac lived on fried egg sandwiches.” To make ends meet, McElroy worked as an assistant in the photography lab.
He kept an emotional distance from people and it was a quality that would define him for people who came to know him later. But McElroy’s passion for taking photographs was also evident and perhaps “his way of interacting with people.”
New York soon beckoned. The two big picture magazines of the period, Life and Look, were based there. When Fusco graduated in 1957, he landed a job on the staff of Look. As Fusco remembers, “by 1958, [we] were all kind of in the same place, starting our careers in the impossible, unbelievably competitive city of New York.” Fusco’s apartment on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village was the scene of numerous parties as well as temporary sleeping quarters for college friends relocating to the city.
McElroy was one of the last of the Ohio group to come to New York, having stayed on at Ohio University as a teaching assistant, completing a master’s degree in 1957. His master’s thesis was a study of the “physical characteristics of the camera on the manner in which the photographer sees his subject.”
He moved back to Chicago and started working for the Montgomery Ward Department Store but with encouragement from Fusco he moved on to New York in June 1958. A few months later he was working as a studio assistant at The Lionel Friedman Studio, whose clients included Karastan Rugs and Seagram’s Seven. McElroy and a second studio assistant, a young Ron Galella, assisted in building sets or moving props for in-studio shoots. They also developed film and printed for Friedman and even did stand-in modeling before the real model arrived. McElroy would work freelance at night, or would go around photographing in New York, trying to sell photos to magazines.
Dine also arrived in New York at this time and was soon contacted by Marcus Ratliff, a high school friend from Cincinnati. Ratliff, who was studying at Cooper Union, had plans to start a small gallery in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church to show his own and his friends’ works. Ratliff also invited another high school friend, Tom Wesselmann, to join the venture, and it was a group show of Dine, Ratliff, and Wesselmann that opened the Judson Gallery on February 14th, 1959. Meanwhile, Ratliff had seen and admired some ink drawings hung in the library at Cooper Union by Claes Oldenburg, who was working there one day a week and Oldenburg’s first Judson Gallery show, Drawings, Sculptures, Poems, opened May 22, 1959.
During 1959 McElroy was still working at Friedman’s studio, and had begun attending theater events in and around Greenwich Village, taking headshots of actors, many now forgotten, but some, like a young Anthony Zerbe, went on to become famous. By the end of the year he was sharing an apartment on East 19th Street with Ohio graduate Don Pasternak. He also found himself pulled into the orbit of another new gallery, The Reuben Gallery.
Encouraged by Alan Kaprow, Anita Reuben, an occupational therapist, whose sister Renee was an artist and who had seen exhibitions at the cooperative Hansa Gallery, found a loft space on Fourth Avenue at Tenth Street, and opened the Reuben Gallery in October 1959 with Kaprow’s first ‘happening’, Eighteen Happenings in 6 Parts. The Reuben Gallery brought together artists from the Judson Gallery as well as artists who had studied with Kaprow at Rutgers or shown with him at the Hansa.
Ratliff remembers McElroy as “part of the scene…He was a bit stocky, had a pock-marked complexion, had straight slightly blondish-brown hair parted on the left, always had his camera slung over his left shoulder and usually wore a faded Levi jacket; he smoked a lot.”
Although McElroy might have been around the Judson Gallery, his first photos of artists’ events were taken at the Reuben Gallery in January 1960, at the opening of a group exhibition of Dine, Robert Whitman, Lucas Samaras, Red Grooms, Kaprow, Oldenburg, Pat Passlof and others. One month later he photographed Dine’s performance at the Judson, The Smiling Workman. Dine remembers McElroy “sticking to you like glue. He was this silent figure just photographing. He never had a tripod. The fact that he recorded so much of my work is an accident because I never asked him too. But now, we’re all very happy he did.”
For the next three years McElroy photographed the works, exhibitions and performances of the artists associated with the Judson and Reuben Galleries in-depth and then followed some of them to photograph their activities in storefronts and other spaces in downtown Manhattan and the Green Gallery on 57th street.
McElroy often found dramatic angles from which to shoot outdoor happenings and installations. He captured Kaprow’s 1961 Yard installation of “used tires, tar paper mounds, barrels,” for instance, in Martha Jackson’s courtyard with an aerial color photograph from about two or three stories above. He shot Kaprow’s Courtyard (November 1962) in the courtyard of The Mills Hotel on Bleecker Street, both from the roof of the hotel and from the ground looking upwards. Whitman comments on how McElroy’s “photographs are very helpful to see what was going on in the piece in terms of its construction or formulation of various parts.” In one picture of The American Moon (December 1960) McElroy points his camera down as the audience looks up at Lucas Samaras swinging above their heads. This “wasn’t part of what the audience saw.”
In addition to the inherent artistry of his work, another thing that sets McElroy’s photographs of happenings apart is his use of color. None of the other photographers working downtown at this time – Fred McDarrah, John Cohen, or Rappoprt – photographed performances in color. Thus, McElroy’s color photographs of these events are unique, a first for the time.
McElroy was Oldenburg’s “favorite photographer” and Oldenburg invited him to take photos of his works and performances during December 1961. He photographed Oldenburg’s sculptures in The Store on East 2nd Street, and after the space was converted to The Ray Gun Theater, he shot all the performances held there each weekend, from February to May 1962. According to Patty Muschinski, the performers gathered at The Store on Sundays to clean up, have films made of the performance, and recreate particular parts of their performances so McElroy could photograph with better lighting conditions and without the distractions of a live audience. Color film demanded better lighting and more complicated and an expensive developing process, but it also meant that McElroy captured the range of Oldenburg’s performances with fidelity.
During the summer of 1962, McElroy came every day to the Green Gallery where Oldenburg and his then wife Patty began creating works for Oldenburg’s Green Gallery show, working all day sewing, stuffing, painting and arranging each piece. He also photographed Oldenburg’s one-time performance called Sports, which took place “in the show after the show closed.”
McElroy started working at Newsweek in January 1, 1962, printing in the darkroom, for about a year, until he was promoted to staff photographer, a position he held until he retired in 1990.
However, Oldenburg and Whitman continued to invite McElroy to photograph their performances into the late 1960s. In the spring of 1965, he photographed Oldenburg’s Washes, held in Al Roon’s health club swimming pool. In December 1965 it was Oldenburg’s Moveyhouse and Whitman’s Prune Flat, on the same program at Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. It was obvious both these artists appreciated that McElroy was capable of photographing any event, whether it was in a small, poorly lit space on the Lower East Side or an open theater space with a huge crowd of spectators.
Robert McElroy’s photography of the Downtown scene is something completely unique in the history of that era. He captured events in all their multiplicity and continues to give new life to the happenings and performances he recorded. As Oldenburg later recalled: “I recognized, and I think everyone did, that although happenings were supposed to be done one time and then never remembered; it was part of the theory that we were supposed to make art and then throw it away. Nevertheless, it was very important to photograph it because it was very visual and remembering it was best done through photographs.” McElroy’s photographs make it possible for us to ‘remember’ performance experiences that, were it not for him, would be lost forever.