I found the photographer Jill Freedman on a packed subway car. I was doing what lots of people do during their commute to and from work—scrolling mindlessly through Instagram. Another photographer I follow re-posted one of her photos with something along the lines of: “Jill Freedman is on Instagram, finally.” I tapped through to her page and found mostly black and white photos of New York City over the past 40 years. After reaching the bottom of her profile, I knew I had to speak to her.
I’m lucky enough to have worked with and befriended a lot of photographers through my career, but there was something about Jill’s work particularly that drew me in. I read up on her as much as I could, and started to understand a profile of a prolific and probably under-celebrated woman documentary photographer from the 1970s. Photos of urban life of decades past make you imagine yourself there, imagine how things might be different. Freedman saw and documented a corner of New York life I wasn’t around for, and her photographs—a number of which you’ll see here—are organic and magnetic.
Jill’s photography career spans several decades and personal milestones. She documented the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in the wake of MLK’s death, slept in a firehouse for middle-of-the-night calls, traveled with the circus and followed cops on their beats. She has seen New York through five decades of gentrification, shifting neighborhoods and crime. Jill’s work can be found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, among others.
Jill, now in her 70s, makes her home in Harlem. Lately, she’s been combing through her deep archives for future books and reaching a fresh batch of fans through her relatively new social media presence (especially on her increasingly popular Instagram account). After I initially reached out, we spoke several times, interrupted only by her assistant Stephen arriving with coffee or a quick puff of her inhaler. With a voice befitting her former life as a chain-smoker, Jill told me about her life’s work.
AB: What was your early life like?
JF: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, waiting to grow up to get to New York. I went to college there, high school, college. I majored in sociology, cultural anthropology. We had a little jazz group, tenor bass, tenor sax, and me. I was the vocalist, the girl singer. We used to sing at dances and a steelworker bar. It was really fun. Jazz is my love. We cut high school every Friday to go there.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in ’61, I told them to send the diploma to my mother and I took a ship that left from New York. I was on the ocean for two weeks headed to Israel. I wanted to get out in the world.
Learning by traveling.
I always had travel lust. I took the first ship leaving and I was in Israel for 10 and a half months. First I was in the Kibbutz and learning the language. When I ran out of money, I became a singer. I had a guitar and seven chords that I knew how to play. I went and sang in Paris for a while and then ended up living two years in London, which I loved. I lived in London ‘62 to ‘64.
I came back to the U.S. at the end of ‘64 to figure out what I wanted to do, and then I just figured I’d get right back to London. I didn’t. I came back and I moved to New York, which is where I’d always wanted to be. And then... I fell in love with the city.
Did you keep singing in New York?
No—I think it would be called a market research firm or something; you know, when they would get groups and have them write commercials and stuff. Then I would analyze the benchmark. Then I thought: “I can’t go through life without doing something that means something to me.” I had a friend that was a copywriter. He used to take me out twice a year to dinner, really expensive places. I thought, “This can’t be a bad gig.”
I was depressed for a couple of months trying to figure my life out, and then one day I woke up and out of nowhere I wanted a camera. A friend lent me his Pentax and I went right out in the street and shot a few rolls. I read the instructions, how you do it, etc. When I had them developed I realized, that’s it: I’m a photographer.
So, I worked as a copywriter for two years at a great agency in New York, Doyle Dane Bernbach [now DDB Worldwide]. It really taught me to write. I wrote some great ads. My first week there my copy chief took me and my art director to lunch, and I had my first two-martini lunch. Very grown-up. Sorry if I’m rambling.
Don’t worry about it. I love the stories.
I do, too. I guess we’re all good bullshitters. I could listen to a story anytime as long as it’s good. It doesn’t have to be true.
I think the reason I picked up the camera was because I was so against the war in Vietnam. In ‘65 I read all the pros and cons and I said, “Well of course we should not be there.” I wanted to shoot the anti-war stuff. It was a nation that was beginning to really protest.
Also, I think that way back when I was a kid I found Life magazines that my parents had put in the attic. They were the ones from the—I don’t know if it’s Bergen-Belsen [Nazi concentration camp], but the liberation of it. They had those pictures, and I never forgot the face on the pile of the corpses. There was a beautiful woman’s face on her skeleton body that they starved to death.
I used to look at those pictures when I was very little. After school I’d go up to the attic and look at them and cry, and then go play ball. After about a year my parents realized what I was doing and they burned the magazines. I think that that’s probably why in the end I wanted photography.
Stuff like that sticks with you.
It affected me so deeply. If I could take pictures like that, that would affect anyone the way those affected me, that’s doing something. That’s doing something with your life.
So how did you leave your job?
One day in Central Park I see a guy, and he’s wearing overalls and a straw hat. He’s got a mule. He might have been chewing on straw, who knows. He’s talking about the Poor People’s Campaign. This was right after they killed Dr. King. That was his latest project, and that’s what got him killed because he was talking rich and poor and against the Vietnam War. It was not just black and white civil rights; it was human rights.
I quit my job like an idiot. All these great flourishes: “Today, I’m a photographer.” They really loved me there and they knew I wanted to be a photographer because I showed them every week. With every paycheck I built up my darkroom and finally got a Nikon for my first camera.
So I went down to Washington for the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Dr. King had had a rally every day so that they couldn’t ignore us. You couldn’t just ride your train past us and not see us, all that. We were out in the street every day, demonstrating. It took a week marching down and sleeping in churches or people’s homes and then six weeks in the mud and shacks where it rained every day.
That became my first book, Old News: Resurrection City. I wanted to do it. I wanted to document it. I felt this would be the last big nonviolent demonstration and I wanted to be there.
You took the leap, and it obviously worked out for you in the end.
I got to follow my passion. Suddenly I went to a life of total uncertainty. On the other hand, I still have no boss. Nobody’s the boss of me. I was doing what I love.
What was it like living in New York at that time? You were in your late twenties.
It was fucking fantastic! There were all these cute guys around. You could work in the darkroom until midnight and then go out to the bar and find one. It was beautiful. It was great being a young woman in New York. As far as photography, I never considered myself a woman photographer, a female photographer.
You’re just a photographer.
I’m a photographer. I could shoot circles around most men, so it’s all bullshit. Although, it is a boys’ club and everything else really is. Women—you don’t see them exhibited or getting the gigs that men do. That’s just the way it is. Hold on, losing my breath a bit. Let me use my inhaler.
After the publishing of Old News: Resurrection City in 1971, Freedman spent the rest of the ‘70s and early ‘80s shooting what ended up in several more books: 1975’s Circus Days, 1977’s Firehouse and 1982’s Street Cops. She spent those years putting herself in places that others wouldn’t necessarily care to be—filthy circus grounds, the boys’ clubs that were NYC firehouses and the drug-filled warzone that was then Times Square.
JF: I used to drink in a bar in the village called Lion’s Head. It was full of newspaper people. The Village Voice was around the corner, and a lot of guys from the papers would come and drink. It was a great bar full of great bullshitters. I knew a fireman that drank there occasionally and he had done a book. I thought, “Wow. That could be a really good story, about firemen.” I was so against that frigging war and I thought, what’s the opposite of a soldier going and killing people they don’t know? A fireman saving people they don’t know. I got permission, and finally ended up with a rescue team that covered all of the Bronx and Harlem.
What came next?
People were saying, “What are you going to do next after firemen? Cops?” I said, “Get out of here. I hate them!” because of Vietnam and all that. Then I would hear sirens and wonder what I was missing. I was like a retired fire horse. It killed me.
Finally I started thinking, “Wait a minute.” I’ve never seen a book about good cops. All the books I’ve read are about the bums, princes of the city, all the scumbags. What is the job simply of being a cop in a big city like New York, and why doesn’t our society work for a lot of people, probably most people. Simply, what is the job? Who are these guys? I dedicated this one to the good guys, the ones who care and try to help.
I started in Alphabet City, 9th Precinct Lower East Side, and it was really rough. When I was doing Firehouse it was when the Bronx was burning. I ended up doing doubles from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. and then midnight to 8 a.m. I ended up in Midtown South—that’s Times Square, 42nd Street, when it was really still New York, still Times Square and all the sleaze you could want within one block. It was gorgeous before it became Disneyland and fast food.
I worked with cops I thought were good cops. That meant they had to have heart, a sense of humor, know the streets, be street smart, and some humanity.
I also love to drink and I used to drink them under the table. I used to get my best stories at 3 in the morning. I love to see men cry. I really do.
Was any part of it frightening? It had to be.
I was scared all the time with both [Firehouse and Street Cops]. I’m an adrenaline junkie like the rest of them. It was scary. This book, I made a distinction. I started off with a Hitchcock quote: “Don’t get too excited, it’s only a movie.” The point was this is not a movie or TV. You get shot in the gut, you turn gray. It’s not red like catsup. It’s gray like dead. You don’t talk for three minutes before they shoot you.
I really hate violence. I hate to see it the way it’s portrayed in film and TV. I just hate it. I’m really nonviolent because of Dr. King. I am nonviolent, but a killer in my heart. I stole that from Bernie.
Are you a big Bernie Sanders supporter?
Oh, yes. Definitely.
The city was obviously a lot more dangerous back then. You must have seen a lot of gentrification.
The city now, it’s not the city. It’s a place for rich people. I’m glad I lived here. It was a small city because of all the neighborhoods. I’m doing that book now. I’ve started [posting] on my Facebook and on my Instagram.
You know, that’s how I found you! Instagram.
That’s great. I’ve been on it less than two months. I am loving it. I’m putting on a picture a day from all my archives. It’s so much fun, my God.
You get a lot of new people to see your work very quickly.
That’s what it’s about. You take a picture so people can see it. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, look at this!” Except it’s already gone. “Look at what?” “You missed it.” That’s what a photo is.
What do you think about people using mostly their phones to take pictures now?
I resisted all this at first because I said, I’m not going to have the visual garbage. I’m not going to do that because there’s so many crappy pictures. Really, to my loss. It was silly. I guess I wasn’t ready for it, which I am now. I’m pretty private. There can be very gregarious moments and then I enjoy reading and being alone and stuff. Now that I found it, I absolutely love it. I’m going to learn how to use the phone. In the meantime [my assistant], Stephen, I email him the image and he puts them up for me.
I think that the selfie thing is obnoxious. Total narcissism. They’ve gotten to the point where they’re not there, their phone is, the camera. They’re in a place that they don’t even see.
Speaking of selfies, do you mind sending me a photo of yourself for the post on Jezebel?
Stephen could send a scanned photo of me from ‘65. We just found it in an unmarked book… Stephen is emailing it now.
I got it! That was fast.
I really like this one! It really looks like…me.
Photos courtesy Jill Freedman. She’s on Instagram.