New York: Jill Freedman, a photographer in the city of fear | Babelia


“Welcome to the City of Fear” was the phrase that headed the pamphlet with which many of the travelers who arrived at New York airports in June 1975 were received. A hooded skull illustrated the alarming pamphlet that listed nine “guidelines” that would help newcomers avoid the dangers that could lie in wait during their visit. Published by a coalition of unions, representing the police force, prison officials and firefighters, it was their response to the plan of cuts and layoffs that threatened the union. The city was practically bankrupt.

From this ruin emerged monologues such as that of Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Taxi Driver; the terrifying portrait of alienation and urban loneliness, filmed by Martin Scorsese that summer, coinciding with a long garbage dump strike: “At night, all the animals come out. Whores, beggars, sodomites, transvestites, fags, drug addicts, drug addicts. Everything is disgusting and venal. Someday, a real rain will wash away all this garbage from the street ”. In ten years, the murder rate had tripled and Hollywood was preparing to capitalize on the starkest reality of the city that never sleeps. If Jill Freedman (Pittsburgh, 1939 – New York, 2019) shared something with the disturbed taxi driver, it was her fondness for prowling the margins observing its inhabitants but, unlike the lonely and vigilante anti-hero, the photographer would tend to empathize and dignify the subjects of his snapshots, whether they were criminals or policemen, firemen or circuses.

Freedman arrived in New York in 1964. He settled in an apartment in lower Manhattan, on Sullivan Street, where as a self-taught he set up a dark room in which he worked for 24 years and consolidated his prestige as a street photographer. Like Brassaï, he was drawn to the night, and like his admired and more scathing predecessor, Weegee, he was often the first to arrive at the scene of the crime. If it was said of the latter that he achieved it through a radio installed in his car that connected directly with the police, Freedman achieved, something that today remains to be seen if possible, to embed himself, from 1978 to 1981, within the police force itself, in two Manhattan police stations covering Times Square and Penn Station as well as the East Village. From those sleepless nights, splattered with blood, alcohol, brawls and fury but also sometimes humor, tenderness and vulnerability of its protagonists, it is nourished Street Cops. The monograph was first published in 1981 and, after being out of print for almost three decades, Setanta Books is launching a new edition.

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Photograph from the book 'Street Cops', by Jill Freedman, published by Setanta Books.
Photograph from the book ‘Street Cops’, by Jill Freedman, published by Setanta Books.jill freedman

After a tip, two policemen wait in profile in the narrow corridor that leads to the door behind which is the alleged armed criminal. One of the officers carries a pistol in his right hand, the other a cigar in his left. In between, not far away, but invisible, is the photographer, also ready to shoot. “They knocked on the door and asked the man to come out,” writes the author, “There were no weapons. But if he had gone out shooting, where would they have gone? ” Each photograph contains a story in itself. A story that not only retains the inescapable reality that embraces the moment but is emphasized by the author’s writing, as descriptive with her camera as in her texts. They are direct and crude images, which reveal an interest perhaps more anthropological than critical, emphasizing the different facets of the work of the police, to whom he gives a voice in the texts, interspersing the comments of different agents with his own. “Sometimes you ask yourself: ‘What are you looking for? What is it that makes you wander through Harlem or the South Bronx in the middle of the night? ”Freedman writes. “The only thing that stands between you and the people on the street is fear,” says a policeman. “If they are not afraid of you, they do not respect you. If they do not respect you, you are dead.”

The author breaks with the documentary photography of the moment, which requires a more distant and neutral look, through a friendlier approach. The series is clearly related to the work done in the early 1970s by Magnum photographer Leonard Freed, Police Work, a formally more elegant and thoughtful work than that of the photographer, who seems more concerned about what she is photographing than how she photographs it; for getting as close as possible to its protagonists in search of reflecting the emotional tension of the moment. “I set out to de-glamorize violence,” he would say. The subject and emotion always before aesthetics and technique.

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Photograph from the book 'Street Cops', by Jill Freedman, published by Setanta Books.
Photograph from the book ‘Street Cops’, by Jill Freedman, published by Setanta Books.jill freedman

At first it was her skepticism of police practices that led her to embark on this project. In 1968 he had covered the so-called March of the Poor, which took place after the assassination of Martin Luther King, from which he came Old New: Resurrection City, his first book, published in 1970, which shows his outrage at injustice and the abuse of any kind of power. But after spending entire days patrolling the city with the NYPD police, his attitude toward them softened until he ended up presenting them as dedicated workers who do their job.

After all, perhaps it was simply the conflict itself and the complexity of human relationships that interested the artist above all else, “a chain smoker who liked to drink,” as John described her. Leland in the obituary published by The New York Times. “He lived his life and his work as if he were auditioning for his own photos. The police siren, he said, meant that someone was playing his song. “

Street Cops‘, Jill Freedman. Seventy Books. 256 pages. 60 euros.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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