Moments in Time

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

She started attending openings at the few photo galleries that existed in New York then. According to A.D. Coleman, who met Freedman just after she returned to New York, maybe a hundred people at most would frequent those events. Anything that could be termed a photography scene was drastically different than it is today. "Photography was not a recognized medium at that time; it was a utilitarian medium, and it was a medium that pulled a certain kind of outsider," explains Coleman. "They were a distinctive breed of people. Most everybody was doing their own darkroom jobs, and you needed certain loner tendencies -- it was for people who enjoyed solitude. And those people as a personality type were generally not prepared to capitalize on their success. They didn't think about their career; they concentrated on their work. I think Jill's generation and several before that were people who got involved with photography for many reasons but not for the money. Because there wasn't so much money."

Even in the Eighties, when photography was increasingly accepted as an art form and photographers enjoyed lucrative careers, Freedman found it difficult to really profit from her projects. "I didn't want to be an actress or a singer because you have to depend on someone to give you work," she says. "I figured with photographs you just go by yourself with a camera and take pictures, but then you've got to work at promoting yourself. For some reason I couldn't. I guess because taking photographs meant so much to me. I've always tended to go off and do these things and then I can never get them published. I guess that's how I fell into books. It's my way to tell a story.

"Maybe I tended to be too intense," she continues. "I probably could have had a life, too, if I'd wanted." Freedman, now 56, has never married. Several serious relationships with men failed because she felt that they interfered with her work. "They act like your mother," she complains. "They always wanted to know when I was coming home."

In addition to her six books (her latest, Jill's Dogs, was published in 1993), Freedman has sporadically accepted photojournalism assignments from Time, the New York Times Magazine, Geo, and other publications. She has had more than 25 one-person exhibitions in galleries in the United States and Europe. The Witkin Gallery, an important photography space in Manhattan, is planning a midcareer retrospective of her work next year (the exact date has not been determined).

"She hasn't had proper recognition in a gallery," contends Evelyn Daitz, the director of the Witkin. "She never devoted the time to that aspect of showing it. She was too busy taking photographs."

Coleman agrees that Freedman has not received her due. "Jill has had a tendency to want to move on to the next project," he says. "It's meant that she hasn't capitalized on each project in a careeristic sense. People haven't seen the scope of her work. Certainly to my mind she is one of the great unsung documentary photographers of her generation."

"She stuck her finger up at me. So I stuck my finger up at her. She said, 'Your mother.' So I said, 'Your mother.' That's when she pulled the gun on me. Crazy bitch," cackles Freedman, her hands on her hips. "I love to act that out."

The photographer is sitting in the coffee bar in the Raleigh's lobby with a copy of Street Cops in front of her, reciting the caption to a photo in the book that shows a woman dressed in spandex pants; she is standing with her back to the camera while an officer searches her litter-strewn car. On another page of the book, the rotting body of a man, a suicide, hangs stiffly from a rope in a tiny room in a transient hotel. "My first day in Midtown South," Freedman gasps, remembering her introduction to the Times Square precinct where she spent part of her two-year stint with New York City police. "Maggots all over the hallway. His face was gone. Whatever real life is, that's got to be it. All the pictures you'd ever see of cops were frisking. Patting people down. So what! You've got to be right there on the spot."

Freedman picks up Old News: Resurrection City and opens it to a picture of several young black men escorting an old woman past a line of policemen holding billy clubs. "I call that one Hands Like Shawls," she notes, then starts to sing: "I ain't gonna let nobody turn me around/Turn me around/Turn me around/Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around/Gonna keep on walkin'/Well, keep on talkin'/Well, marchin' off to the mount."

Freedman sips her coffee, shakes her head, and says, "We were so naive. We actually thought that we could stop the war and make people see." Next she reaches for Circus Days, pausing at the photo of the sad-eyed elephant trainer pressing his face against an elephant's head. "'I've been with the circus all my life,' he said," Freedman remembers. "'If they take me off the elephants, I'll walk.'"

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