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.

Freedman suddenly sings out a fragment of an old protest song -- "I don't want to go to war!" A her muscular voice resonating off the walls as she sloshes the developing wash back and forth, back and forth over the emerging image. The paper gradually reveals the face of Murray Pantirer, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, one of the names on Schindler's famous list. Pantier, who met his wife in a concentration camp and his business partner in a center for displaced persons after the war, owns a successful construction company in New Jersey and an apartment in South Florida.

The portrait shows a physically fit man of retirement age dressed in a white knit tennis shirt with a black striped collar that sets off his tanned skin. His sparse crown of white hair blends softly into the photo's background. But the image focuses on his eyes, which squint behind rimless glasses. Behind their determined, challenging stare is resigned disbelief, the look of someone who has seen it all.

"He said he was an orphan twice. The second time after the war when he had nowhere to go," notes Freedman, picking up the photo with wooden tongs and plunging it into the stop bath (a tub of liquid solution that arrests the action of the developer chemicals). She studies the submerged photo and says, "Sometimes you look at [Holocaust survivors] and they're the children they were when all that was going on."

After dropping the portrait into a bath fed by running water (this will rinse the developing chemicals from the print), Freedman reaches for another negative and places it in the enlarger along with a fresh sheet of paper. Leon and Betty, two more Holocaust survivors -- they live in Sunrise -- appear on the paper when Freedman puts it in the developing bath. Then a third negative goes into the enlarger.

"Yesssss! That's a beauty," shouts Freedman, chuckling with delight as she swooshes the developer back and forth over the new photo. "It's a piece of cake -- all it takes is twenty years of practice."

She snaps on a small desk lamp on the shelf above the sink to get a better look at the picture, which she took in a London subway station. An advertisement for a Volkswagen sedan appears in crisp contrast to the cement wall of the station. Imperceptible at first, then impossible to ignore, two words are scrawled in black print on the billboard: "Kill Jews."

The three photos are part of a proposed book on the Holocaust that Freedman has tentatively titled Lament for a Lost Generation, a project she has been working on for the past three years. "In 1993 I suddenly realized -- my God! -- it's 50 years since the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and I had to go," she recalls earlier that same day, seated on a floral print couch in the living room of her sunny one-bedroom apartment. "So I went." Above her head is a framed photograph of three elephants kicking up their heels, and another, larger one of a man wearing clown makeup (and nothing else) sprawled on a zebra-print blanket, his naked butt turned to the camera. A worn blond-wood acoustic guitar hangs next to it. The adjoining dining room is taken up by a large wooden counter and a wall of gray metal shelves that hold stacks of flat orange boxes, which contain even more of Freedman's photographs and negatives. A row of prints hangs on a wall near the front door: a chimp wearing a suit and sitting in a chair; a squirrel arched up on his hind legs as if he were singing hallelujah; a sleek horse, Unbridled, exercising just before he won the Kentucky Derby in 1990. Freedman's two pets, Pooch, a black cat with white socks, and Lulu, a brown Siamese, prowl playfully about the room.

"I went to the concentration camps and I took pictures, and I took pictures of the people that returned for the anniversary," Freedman continues. "When I looked at those pictures, it made me realize that I had to do this."

In 1994 the Washington-based Alicia Patterson Foundation awarded Freedman one of its prestigious $30,000 journalism fellowships to work on the project. With that money she traveled to Eastern Europe, looking for what was left there of the life of the Jews. She has also taken pictures in New York, in London, and in Miami. Last year she spent most of her time reading books about the Holocaust, an experience that left her devastated. "Each book you read leads to the next," she notes, closing her eyes in pain. "I read too much, and I just ended up crying all the time."

After a period in which she was so distraught that she was barely able to leave her apartment, Freedman is now ready to finish the book. She is looking for additional funding so she can go to Israel and shoot the book's remaining pictures. She has already selected and printed 60 photos. The beauty of some of the compositions defies the chilling implications of their subject matter: a bouquet of limp flowers placed on a pile of victims' shoes at a Polish death camp; a Cubist-like pyre of toppled Jewish tombstones bathed in glowing sunshine in a Warsaw cemetery; votive candles placed in the arched doorway of a crematorium oven. Elsewhere Freedman documents a scene using deliberate juxtapositions. In one photo a tired-faced man wears a sign around his neck to identify himself as he searches for relatives at the Warsaw ghetto anniversary. In the next photo in the sequence, taken at the same event, a heartier-looking Pole wears a sign around his neck that indicates he's offering for sale snapshots of Jews being herded together on the streets of the ghetto A photos that might assist survivors in identifying their dead relatives.

In these, as in her other photographs, Freedman exhibits an almost mystical ability to capture the story she is after solely in the expression on her subjects' faces. The pursed lips and bearded chin of the only rabbi in the Czech Republic. A little girl twirling in circles in the playroom of a Jewish kindergarten in Prague. A toothless old man clapping with delight at a dance for Jews in Hungary. A man in tennis shorts and a baseball cap exiting the barracks at Auschwitz, his face etched with a pain too deep for tears. Three teenagers, members of a church group cleaning up a Jewish cemetery in Poland, smirking defiantly at the camera.

All of these pictures have captions typed on the back -- spare commentaries that not only reveal Freedman's knowledge of the subject, but also make her point of view blatantly clear. One photo shows a "Jewish tour" in Prague, a tourist activity during which, Freedman writes, "German tourists walk on Jewish graves." To accompany a seemingly innocent photograph of two adolescents embracing on a bench in Poland, she writes: "Teenagers making out next to the river where the ashes of 22,000 Jews who died in the ghetto were thrown."

The photographs link the plethora of lives affected by Hitler's pogroms -- Jews and Gentiles, young and old, living and dead -- conveying great emotion without pathos. "I've seen a lot of so-called art and pictures about the Holocaust that have nothing to do with it -- it's just crappy-ass stuff," Freedman huffs. "I was worried, 'Am I worthy of the subject? Do I have something to contribute?' I really suffered about the worthiness number, then I thought, 'That's a cop-out.' I have as much right to say something about it as anyone else because it's been with me my whole life. Everyone in my generation who was born during the war or after or around that time -- it really affected us, the fact that it could have been us."

It was in Pittsburgh, after World War II, that Freedman discovered the Holocaust. At age seven in 1946, she came across some copies of Life magazine that her parents had piled up in the attic. She started going up there every day after school to look at the pictures in the magazines. Children in the Warsaw ghetto. The emaciated bodies of people in the concentration camps. Piles of cadavers. It was her first exposure to photojournalism.

"They say a picture steals your soul," she wrote in her application to the Alicia Patterson Foundation. "Maybe those pictures stole mine. Like they stole my innocence."

Fourth-generation Americans, the Freedmans were one of the few Jewish families in a middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood whose residents were mostly of Polish and Irish descent. Her father was a traveling salesman who hawked steel cabinets, her mother a nurse-turned-housewife. Freedman recounts how her classmates chased her and beat her up after school, calling her "a dirty Jew." She fought back, and they learned to leave her alone.

She also played softball -- shortstop and substitute pitcher. "I wasn't allowed in the Little League and I could play ball better than any guy in grade school," she scoffs. "The Mighty Midgets, big deal. I hit two homers over the fence, and they wouldn't let me play because I was a girl. That really pissed me off. I lived for baseball."

One pleasurable event in Freedman's childhood was a trip she took to Miami Beach with her parents. They stayed at the Raleigh hotel on Collins Avenue. She still remembers the glamorous showgirls, the elegant guests, the retirees dancing in Lumus Park on Ocean Drive. "I expected Miami Beach would be the same way that it was then," she laughs, walking the few blocks from her apartment to the Raleigh for a late lunch on a Monday afternoon. She grimaces at two Winnebagos, sure signs of a fashion shoot in progress, parked in front of the hotel. "If I knew this town was full of models, I wouldn't have come," she snaps. "Where are the lovely old Jewish people? They all had stories. I love a good story."

Within seconds after sitting down at a table on the hotel's patio, Freedman has made friends with a young waiter, who brings her a hamburger, even though the kitchen has already closed. She picks up her story as she eats. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied anthropology and sociology, she went to Israel, still fascinated by the Holocaust. "I wanted to make sure that the Jews there were all right," she explains. "For next time. I always knew there'd be a next time." There was also a more frivolous motive for her trip. "I met an Israeli waiter the summer before," she grins. "He was gorgeous."

Freedman booked passage on a ship, landing in the port city of Jaffa. "I loved the sea," she says wistfully. "If I were a man, I would have shipped out. Merchant marine." Instead, a pretty girl, with corn-silk hair and a turned-up nose, she played guitar and sang, performing in small clubs and coffeehouses. With some musicians she met in Israel, she took off to Europe, where she traveled around, supporting herself as a singer for two and a half years. "I was no Sarah Vaughan," she laughs. "I did have the chance to make a record. That's when I said, 'No, there's something I should do with my life.'" And she decided she wanted to do that something -- whatever it was -- in New York, so in 1964 she moved there. "I was always waiting to grow up and go to New York," she says, taking a sip of iced tea. "I figured I was a native New Yorker born in Pittsburgh."

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."

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.'"

The photographer looks up and glances out the window onto Collins Avenue. "I still haven't seen the costumed elephants on parade during the October festivals in India," she sighs. "I'd love to do that. Just go and take some snaps, catch what's left of the world before it's all gone.

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