Moments in Time

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

She got a job as a market researcher, and rented the second floor of a small building in Greenwich Village above the Sullivan Street Playhouse, the theater where the musical The Fantastiks has been running for 36 straight years. She bought a gray poodle puppy and named him Fang, after the wolf in Jack London's White Fang. But she was still looking for something that would have meaning for her. One day, she recalls, she borrowed a friend's camera, and instantly knew she was a photographer.

"So I taught myself photography," Freedman shrugs. By that time she had another job as a copywriter at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. She spent her paychecks on camera equipment. "I trained myself from the very beginning," she adds. "I didn't have the money for fancy stuff. I saved up and got my first camera, a Nikon. When I wanted wide angle, I moved back; and when I wanted telephoto, I moved close."

Every day after work Freedman walked the streets of New York with Fang, whom she credits with teaching her how to see. "Dogs see everything," she points out. "I'd walk down the street with him and I'd see what he saw, things that I had never noticed before." She also started looking at pictures: "I'd go up to the Museum of Modern Art and see what a good print looked like. And I read some books about printing, and I watched a printer a few times. I used to go and buy photography books. I was obsessed. Obsessed and driven for a long time."

One book that Freedman will always remember is a collection called Twenty Great Shots From the War, published by Life magazine; it included W. Eugene Smith's photo of soldiers in World War II rescuing a baby from among the dead in a cave on a South Pacific island. "I saw that picture and it killed me," Freedman remembers. "That was it. And then I went to a show of Andre Kertesz's photos, and I saw [photographer] Cartier-Bresson, and I was immediately drawn to the documentary school, which is what I love, as opposed to the manipulated -- or bullshit -- school or the artsy-fartsy school."

Like Kertesz, the Hungarian photographer commonly credited with the invention of the photo-reportage style, Freedman is interested in what he called the "little happenings," using the camera to record the unrecognized moments of everyday life. Like the work of Smith and Walker Evans and other WPA-era photographers, Freedman's photo-essays require a total immersion in their subjects.

A.D. Coleman, a well-known photo critic who currently writes for the New York Observer, finds Freedman's methodology particularly effective. "It's that refusal to be sort of a day-tripper and go back to her apartment," he contends. "That kind of approach results in the superficial response of someone seeing a situation from the outside. What [Freedman] does, drawing on people who were role models for her, is to become an effective participant -- which leads to sharing the participant bias -- and that is reflected in the work."

The young photographer became friendly with her idols Kertesz and Smith, visiting them in their New York apartments in the Seventies when they were old men. Another legendary photographer, Aaron Siskind, gave her $10,000 to complete her book on Ireland. Cornell Capa, photographer Robert Capa's brother and one of the founders of the International Center of Photography in New York, has been one of her biggest supporters. "Those old guys were the ones that loved me because they saw themselves in me," Freedman asserts. "And I see myself as their equal. I always did, in the sense that they were doing real pictures. And I'm not talking about setups in the studio -- anybody can do that. In the sense when you really are actually catching time. I mean holy smoke -- stopping that moment."

Freedman spent more and more time taking pictures, but she held on to her copywriting job, an experience still evident in the potency of her photo captions. In 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, she finally gave the job up to take pictures full time. "I was so outraged at Martin Luther King's death that I just quit and went down there [to Washington, D.C.]," she relates. Armed with 100 feet of black-and-white Tri-X film, a film loader, and two cameras, she joined the Northeast caravan of the Poor People's Campaign, busing from city to city, marching through the streets each day until they reached Washington. There, in Resurrection City, she met Life reporter John Neary, who sent some of her film back to his magazine. The first six pictures she ever had published appeared in Life, the magazine that had had such an impact on her as a child. Her photo book about the experience, Old News: Resurrection City, came out two years later on New York publisher Dick Grossman's imprint.

Back in New York after Resurrection City, Freedman was in her element, wearing Indian blouses and beads, hanging out and taking pictures. "I remember once someone insulted me," Freedman says now, laughing. "They said, 'You know what's the matter with you? You're a bohemian!' I loved that."

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