Jill Freedman

Book Review Street Cops – Jill Freedman

© Jill Freedman

Setanta presents Street Cops, the long-awaited reissue of the iconic monograph by celebrated NYC photographer, Jill Freedman.

─── by Rosie Torres, May 25, 2022
  • One of the most important practitioners of her time, Freedman was a diligent street and documentary photographer who spent her life capturing the complexities of the day, with rare veracity and grace. 

    Kids on copy car, NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman from 'Street Cops'

    Drawn to those on the fringes of society, she often spent months immersed with her subjects, observing them through her lens as they went about their daily lives.

    Originally published in 1981, Street Cops represents her most iconic body of work, one that embodies the sensitivity and perspicacity for which she is renowned.

    Two cops in angles hallway, NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman from 'Street Cops'

    New York City in the 70s was a turbulent place. In the midst of economic stagnation and industrial decline, and faced with the threat of bankruptcy, the city’s government laid-off workers and cut municipal services. The already high unemployment rates soared, leading to societal erosion and a dramatic increase in crime.

    In the midst of this tumult Freedman, over the course of two years, accompanied NYPD officers from two Manhattan precincts (Midtown South and the Ninth) on the frontline, photographing them as they responded to a tidal wave of criminality.

    Young boy in the back of a car, street, documentary photography by Jill Freedman from 'Street Cops'
    Cops taking disheveled perp downStairs NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman from 'Street Cops'
    Cops with man in carrot suit, NYC. Street photography by Jill Freedman from 'Street Cops'

    At the time, police corruption and misconduct were widespread. Having documented The Poor People’s Campaign (that ensued after the assassination of Martin Luther King) and witnessed the police response to the Vietnam protests, plus owing to her natural affinity to the marginalized, Freedman initially approached her task with a certain level of skepticism. However, over time, she grew to see the good in some of the officers.

    Cop Dragging Out Perp, NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman
    Cops Showing Off Their Tshirts. NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman
    Cops, police. NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman

    As with all of her work, her images are intimate, penetrative, and unwaveringly honest. Visceral and candid, they convey New York City at its most raw; stripped of any veneer, its many fissures laid bare for all to see. Yet at the same time, there is a tenderness to the imagery,  underpinned by the same deep humanism that galvanized the architects of such photography decades earlier.

    Kids fooling around with toy gun. NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman. From 'Street Cops'

    Striking portrayals of violence and poverty – stab victims, soaked in their own blood (rendered viscous and obsidian by the black & white film); young drug addicts, some barely pubescent, and elderly mugging victims, confused and alone – are imbued or juxtaposed with moments of camaraderie, humor, benevolence, and compassion, an attestation of humanity’s ability to shine through, even in the most wretched conditions.

    Furthermore, despite the nature of the subject matter, Freedman’s portrayals never descend into gratuitous, nor are they voyeuristic, an accusation often leveled at photographs of similar subjects. 

    Cop With 3 Kids. NYC, street photography by Jill Freedman

    Accompanied by simple captions, or often, by reflective prose, (both her own and her police subjects) Street Cops, tells the human stories behind a troubled period in New York City history, and though it may be four decades since its original publication, retains relevance in our fraught, and polarized times. Whilst, for Freedman, who passed away three years ago in her adopted home city, it would ultimately become a tribute to the bravery and compassion of its eponyms.

    “This one’s for the good guys, the ones who care and try to help”

    (Excerpt from the introduction of Street Cops)


    Street Cops is available now via Setanta

    All images © Jill Freedman