Jill Freedman: Street Cops

New York in the ’70s and ’80s was a volatile city, where everything was happening at once. For over two years, Jill Freedman joined two precincts of the NYPD as they responded to the violence and the unpredictability of the city, putting herself directly on the frontline like an invisible witness.

Freedman was initially skeptical of the police after documenting The Poor People’s Campaign (1968) that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King and after witnessing the police response to the Vietnam protests. But after spending entire days touring the streets and entire nights drinking with the men and women of the NYPD, she started to see the heroism and compassion of the good cops. The ones nobody talked about, who were out there to help their city, seeing the best and the worst of humanity. The ones people loved and respected.

The photographs in Street Cops are intimate and penetrating. They expose not only the rampant violence of New York City at the time but the tender moments between officers and members of the community, the jokes between cops and those getting arrested, the camaraderie between partners, the passion for doing a job that most people would consider an act of lunacy. Her images are raw and direct; unafraid to show the horror. But she also captured the humor and tenderness of a situation. The vulnerability.

Freedman approached photography with an anthropological interest and no judgment. She wanted to tell a story as she saw it and heard it. Street Cops is a collection of stories about a city and its people on both sides of the law.

“This Pittsburgh-born photographer, who died in 2019, shot her first notable body of work in 1968, while living in the Resurrection City encampment, a historic forty-two-day-long demonstration on the Washington Mall. Organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, it was envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr., and staged in the stunned wake of his assassination. In one unforgettable image, Freedman captured a group of protesters, her view of them blocked by a policeman clenching his club behind his back in the foreground. For her 1978-81 series, “Street Cops,” now on view at the Daniel Cooney gallery, the photographer embedded with the N.Y.P.D., and her eye is both surprisingly sympathetic and predictably skeptical. (“There really are good guys and bad guys,” she wrote.) These unvarnished images show—from a then-novel, pre-“Hill Street Blues” point of view—routine arrests, tense domestic disputes, stabbing victims, and child witnesses against a backdrop of poverty, racism, and neglect. “I wanted to show it straight, violence without commercial interruption,” she explained, “sleazy and not so pretty without the make-up.” She succeeded.”
(Johanna Fateman – The New Yorker)

About the Author

Jill Freedman (1939, Pittsburgh – 2019 Manhattan) was a highly respected New York City documentary photographer whose award-winning work is included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, George Eastman House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the New York Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, among others. She appeared in solo and group exhibitions throughout the world and contributed to many prominent publications.

A portrait of Jill Freedman

Jill Freedman was best known for her street and documentary photography, recalling the work of André Kertész, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, and Cartier-Bresson. She published seven books: Old News: Resurrection City; Circus Days; Firehouse; Street Cops; A Time That Was: Irish Moments; Jill’s Dogs; and Ireland Ever. Jill Freedman lived and worked on the Upper West Side of New York City.

Jill Freedman: Street Cops
September 17 – October 30, 2021
Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery – New York

Hardcover with Dust Jacket: 256 pages, 117 images
Publisher: First Setanta Books Edition 2021
Language: English
Size: 12.44 x 9.56 inches
Weight: 4.85 pounds

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