Moments in Time

Cops, firemen, dogs, the circus: Photographer Jill Freedman deftly documents life's little happenings

In the spring of 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., photographer Jill Freedman hit the freedom trail with King's Poor People's Campaign, marching from New York City to a plywood lean-to on the mall in Washington, D.C., chanting "No More Hunger" and "Give Peace a Chance" along the way. Once in Washington she encamped with thousands of protesters from all over the nation in a field of makeshift sheds and tents called Resurrection City -- six weeks of mud, baloney on white bread, walking pneumonia, chemical toilets with no chemicals, proud old people, hungry babies, and strutting black dudes who shouted "Hey, white girl, take my picture!"

On a warm evening in early February, Freedman is in her darkroom, a converted storeroom down the hall from her South Beach apartment, trying to snare the soul of history one more time. "Beautiful silver stories," she murmurs, looking down at the shimmering silver and black shades of a negative projected onto a sheet of photographic paper under the light of an enlarger. "You've got to get that life in a picture -- pow!" she adds, punching her palm. "I don't use weak pictures, I don't want them around. You have to tell a story in one split second."

A petite blonde with a guide dog's eye, the sassy mouth of a seasoned cocktail waitress, and an epicurean taste for humanity, Freedman tells stories of ordinary people, the faces not in the news, the ones passed over by our collective cult of personality. Over the past 30 years she has infiltrated the everyday underground, the world of common heroes, street performers, criminals, welfare mothers, dreamers -- documenting the subcultures within our society that most people never see, nor even care to.

When Freedman was 31, in 1971, she ran away with the Clyde Beatty-Cole circus. Driving all night between towns, the circus put on two shows a day, one on Sundays. Her pictures of that time show a man caressing an elephant's trunk with his wrinkled cheek, a clown carefully leading a two-foot-tall woman by the hand, weathered hands driving tent stakes into the ground. "I wanted to photograph it now, while it still exists," Freedman wrote in her 1975 book Circus Days. "If we lose all of this, what will we have lost? And where will the free people go, when circus days, like the good old days, like the dreams you had, like the child you were, are gone."

In 1976 the intrepid photographer moved into a firehouse in New York's South Bronx in order to document the firemen's lives. Because women were banned from the firehouse's dorms, she slept in the back of the chief's car, riding to fires in bed. She compared the firemen to soldiers, fighting for life instead of death. They called her "the liberal." For an encore she toured for two years with the city's cops on the Lower East Side and Times Square. Forbes magazine called Street Cops, which was published after that experience, the most extraordinary book of 1981. Drugs. Violence. Death. People.

In between her other projects, Freedman took a camera to Ireland. On the cover of her 1987 book A Time That Was, Johnny Dougherty plays his fiddle in a pub in County Donegal, his hands ethereally bathed in a heavenly ray of light. Behind him a friend hoists a pint and laughs, mouth open, head back, like a craggy soldier in a Goya painting.

"I want to get it down now," the photographer wrote in the introduction to -- Time That Was, "while there are still people who remember a time that was, places that were, that will never be again."

Dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and an oversize black T-shirt commemorating a past New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, Freedman stretches up on her toes under the red glow of two Kodak Safelights that hang from the high ceiling of her darkroom. A consummate New Yorker, she moved here five years ago after winning a bout with breast cancer, setting up her home and studio in a garden apartment building near the Miami Beach Convention Center, chosen, as puts it, "because it looks like a Sixties motel."

She adjusts the controls on the enlarger and reaches for a foot-long piece of wire with an oval-shaped piece of black tape protruding from its end. Like a possessed pixie, Freedman rapidly waves the wire over the paper, then drops her makeshift wand and flutters her hands above the paper's surface. A few seconds pass and she grabs a large piece of cardboard, places it midway between the light and the paper, and starts tilting it this way and that.

"Now I'm painting with light," she explains excitedly. "You can hold it back or burn it in. You just feel it, the silver, the light, the black and white, and all the beautiful grays. A lot of photographers never cared about the craft. But I always did."

She releases the paper from the enlarger and thrusts it into a plastic tub of developer sitting in the large wooden basin that takes up one wall of the closet-sized room. Aluminum film canisters, glass measuring cups, cans of chemicals, and a small metal cabinet full of photographic paper sit on a shelf above the sink. A yellow cassette player is cued up with a taped reading of Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep. The hands of a square black-and-white-face timer marked "Dayton, Ohio, 1967" are running counterclockwise.

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