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