Jill Freedman was a highly respected New York City documentary photographer whose award-winning work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art
, the International Center of Photography
, George Eastman House
, the Smithsonian American Art Museum
, the New York Public Library
, the Museum of Fine Arts
, Houston, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
, Paris, among others. She appeared in solo and group exhibitions throughout the world, and contributed to many prominent publications.
Jill Freedman was best known for her street and documentary photography, recalling the work of André Kertész
, W. Eugene Smith
, Dorothea Lange
, and Cartier-Bresson
. She published seven books: Resurrection City
; Circus Days
; Street Cops
; A Time That Was: Irish Moments
; Jill’s Dogs
; and Ireland Ever
. Jill Freedman lived and worked on the Upper West Side of New York City.
The Joy of Photography
"When I was seven I found old Life Magazines in the attic. My parents had kept the ones from the war and for a year I used to go up there after school, look at the pictures, cry, then go play softball. When my parents realized that I had found them and how they affected me, they burned them, but it was too late, those pictures had burned into my brain.
Outwardly I was normal, but those images were always with me, and in my dreams. Even now I can see them, the man who had tried to escape the burning barn, the concentration camp. I majored in Sociology in college, then spent a few years traveling around Europe singing for my supper. I’d spend the days wandering around, searching for adventure, meeting all kinds of eccentric characters and loving their stories. When I ran out of money I’d sing again. I settled in New York, got a job, tried to figure out what I wanted to do. Something meaningful, not just work.
I was starting to worry. Then one day I woke up and wanted a camera. I borrowed one. I had never taken a picture before, and as soon as I held it in my hands it felt good. I never had the sense of holding a machine. I read the instructions, went out into the street, shot two rolls, had them developed. I was thunderstruck. It were as though I had been taking pictures for years, but in my head, without a camera. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m a photographer.” What a relief.
Photojournalism was always it for me. Those pictures in the attic had set my course. Those, and all the characters I’d met. To tell a story in the blink of an eye, have it printed so that millions of people could see it and wrap their fish in it, to have my pictures reach people the way those Life magazines had reached me, now that was doing something.
I am self taught. I got a copywriting job to support myself and I started learning, devouring books and looking at good work, walking a lot, and shooting. Those early years were fired with an intensity and passion I had never felt before. I was obsessed and driven. I thought about photography all of the time. And my pictures, if no one else had liked them, it wouldn’t have mattered, I loved them. Sometimes I’d look at them and think, What if I wake up one day and it’s gone? What if it goes away like it came?
With each paycheck I bought equipment and built a darkroom and when I finally made my first print, I was hooked for good. It was the first time that I had ever finished something I had started. My father used to say, “You blow hot and cold.” But it was magic, watching it come up in the developer. I still feel it. I worked hard, learning my craft.
I like to work two ways, either on a specific idea or just wandering around, getting lost, snapping. Eventually, all the wanderings go together, and then I find out what I’ve been doing.
Photography is magic. You can stop time itself. Catch slivers of moments to savor and share time and again. Tell beautiful silver stories, one photo alone, or many playing together to form a book. 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. That’s the joy of photography, and the fun."
-- Jill Freedman
Freedman was born in Pittsburgh in 1939 to a traveling salesman and a nurse. After college, she traveled to Israel and England before taking up copywriting jobs in New York to sustain herself. She had not grown up taking photographs, but she said in New York one day she “woke and wanted a camera,”
according to an essay she published on her website. She wrote that she was inspired by copies of Life Magazine
she had pored over as a child.
Looking back on a photograph from the early years of her career in a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Freedman said activism and protests had been the catalysts for her photography: "I studied sociology and anthropology and now realise that what I’ve been doing with my camera all these years is documenting human behavior. But I was taking pictures in my head long before I became a photographer. It was the Vietnam war that changed everything for me. I was angry and wanted to photograph anti-war demonstrations, so got my first camera."
After her stint in activism, Freedman joined the circus for several months, taking mesmerizing photographs of clowns, chained elephants, and beartamers. Freedman applied a similar level of vigor and rigor to documenting the lives of public servants, photographing intimate moments of firefighters’ and policemen’s work. She followed firefighters in Harlem and the South Bronx for two years at a time women tended to not be allowed in these environments, offering her an unguarded view of their lives. She also took a positive view of cops and thought they faced unfair criticism.
“I set out to deglamorize violence,”
Freedman told the New York Times in 2015.
In the 1980s, Freedman started to work less due to health complications, receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in 1988 and breaking her pelvis later. She had hoped to create one last photobook before she died, to be titled Madhattan, and was featured in the street photography documentary Everybody Street (2013), alongside the likes of Bruce Davidson and Joel Meyerowitz. The Steven Kasher Gallery organized an exhibition spanning four decades of her career in 2015 and, in 2017, a show devoted to her Resurrection City photographs.