Close-Up: Remembering Jill Freedman

By Maureen Cavanagh   Wednesday October 16, 2019

What does it look like when you come face-to-face with your heroes?

Is it a Marvel movie meet-up with a crescendo of music rising? Or is it a sit-down over tea in a one bedroom walk-up in Harlem?

I met Jill Freedman in December of 2013, huddled in her living room under shadows cast, literally, by her life's work: boxes upon boxes containing contact sheets and negatives, 8x10 prints in piles stacked along hallways and on shelves, desks and floors.

Her stark black-and-white images, shot on Tri-X film, captured life in New York: bohemians in SoHo; drug dealers and prostitutes in Times Square; nightlife at Studio 54; cops and firefighters; anti-war demonstrators; a traveling circus.

I fan-girled. I was enthusiastic. Maybe I over-enthused. I had studied her in college. I owned her books. I saw her pictures hanging in MoMA. I aspired to be like her.

Jill stared at me over her cup of tea.  

“I honestly didn’t think anyone remembered me or knew who I was anymore,” she said. “I was never adept at hustling, I never kissed ass or played the game,” she said. And yet her work appears in multiple houses of prestigious photography, including the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The New York Public Library, the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, the Carnegie Museum of Art, George Eastman House, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris. She was featured in Cheryl Dunn’s 2013 film, Everybody Street, a documentary about New York City street photographers. In addition, Freedman published seven books of her work: Old News: Resurrection CityCircus DaysFirehouse; Street Cops; A Time That Was: Irish Moments; Jill’s Dogs; and Ireland Ever: The Photographs of Jill Freedman.

While her work may have been, as Austin Bryant noted in Jezebel, “under-celebrated,” it was no less inspiring. In the words of photographer David Turnley, Freeman had “the spirit, empathy and drive to make photographs that speak to those same qualities; to photograph people who are as Dr. King said so poignantly, are defined by the content of their character. They may not have been wealthy socioeconomically, but they were rich in their humanity.”

Freedman adopted an itinerant lifestyle upon graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1961, living overseas while making her living as a singer and musician with a regular stint on a variety show for the BBC. The performance life would be short-lived, however, as Freedman explained: “I realized, ‘Hey, I’m no Sarah Vaughn.’”

She wound up in New York City, living in an apartment above the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. “From that moment forward I felt part of the scene, I never felt I didn’t belong,” said Freedman. “New York was my town.” While working at the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency (“I loved the three martini lunches,” she recalled) Freedman taught herself photography on nights and weekends.

I asked Jill whose work she admired, which photographers she looked up to. She quickly rattled off Cornell Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, and Aaron Siskind.  “But more than anyone I adored Andre Kertesz,” she said. “I saw his work one day in a gallery as I was walking down the street and it stopped me in my tracks.”

Photo by Maureen Cavanagh, 2015

“So I got myself a camera,” said Freedman. “I’d never taken a picture before, I went immediately out into the street and photographed people.”  A friend offered to help develop her first two rolls of film, a skill she didn’t yet have. "When I looked at the contact sheets, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m a photographer,’” she recalled.

Was she ever.

“I had one rule: If someone didn’t want me to take their picture, I wouldn’t do it,” said Freedman. “However if I really, really wanted your picture, I was going to talk you into it.” This steadfastness was a hallmark of her career. She once traveled with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Circus and didn’t take out her camera for the whole first week; instead, she familiarized herself with the circus talent and crew. Only when the owners of the circus feared she might be a revenue agent did she finally start making photographs.

She likewise embedded with FDNY’s Engine Company 82, Truck 31, in Harlem. “Women were not allowed in the firehouse at that time,” recalled Freedman. “A male reporter could have slept in the dorms, but as a female I was not allowed. So I slept in the back of the chief’s car, on the apparatus floor between the engines.” It took several weeks before the firefighters trusted her: “I made it clear that I was not there to win any popularity contests, I was there to tell their story, about what it was like to be a firefighter,” she recalled. Freedman dressed in baggy clothes so as not to distract the men as she hung around the firehouse 24/7.  Later, at an awards ceremony at City Hall, Freedman wore a dress, and the firefighters were stunned. “She has legs!” she recalls them hollering.

Photo by Maureen Cavanagh, 2015

Her work with New York City police officers, which can be seen in the 1982 book Street Cops, won her acclaim. “She was tenacious, dedicated and unafraid to dive into a story — qualities that are still rare,” says photographer Fred Conrad, a true luminary in the field. Like the firefighters, she was able to embed into the policemen's inner circle, earning their trust and going with them on dangerous calls. “I could drink them all under a table, that’s how I got the cops to open up to me,” she grinned. “Next thing you know they are crying and bearing their souls.”

Photo by Maureen Cavanagh, 2015

It was a talent that bore her well in her fascination with Ireland, a place she returned to again and again to photograph its countryside and its people. “I’m Jewish, but I adopted Ireland as my own old country,” she said. Her work there resulted in two books:  Ireland Ever, which came out in 1987, and A Time That Was: Irish Moments, published in 2004, the text of which was written by Frank and Malachy McCourt. These two books feature her most classically composed photographs. The people of Ireland accepted Jill into their homes and pubs, resulting in evocative imagery.

“Photography is magic,” said Jill. “A photograph is a sharing. It says ‘Hey, look at this!’ It’s a miracle, is what it is.  And when you’re going good and you get a new picture you love, there’s nothing better.”

Freedman passed away on Oct. 9 at the age of 79. Her impact will live on. David Turnley again:  “She had a twinkle in her eye, determination her heart and the incredible grace to make photographs that will live on forever.”
At top: By Maureen Cavanagh, December 2015

Maureen Cavanagh is a photographer and photo editor who splits time between Vancouver, Canada, and New York City.  She is the founding creative director of The Players’ Tribune, the president of Women In Sports Photography (@womeninsportsphotography) and a former photo editor at Sports Illustrated. Maureen has her Masters in Journalism from Columbia and went to Newhouse at Syracuse for undergrad in photojournalism. She and her husband have 4 children.


  1. commented on: October 16, 2019 at 7 p.m.
    If you hadn't been the one to write this remembrance I probably would not have read it. Now I have homework to do and books to buy. Thanks, Mo!

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