The city has lost millions in tax revenue, millions have lost jobs, wealthy urbanites have fled to the suburbs. This could easily describe New York during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic or in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the period of Jill Freedman’s Street Cops series. This time-capsule photography exhibition is the first since the artist’s death in 2019 and shows a seemingly bygone New York. But spend long enough with the photos and the through lines emerge: relationships between Black folks and the police, the mental health and social work burdens placed on untrained beat cops, gender inequality in the workplace.
On view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, Jill Freedman’s project reemerges as New York again faces conflict and instability. The 50 photographs, which span 1978 to 1981, show moments on the job with the Midtown South precinct, the blocks that surround Times Square and Bryant Park, and the ninth precinct, the East Village. These dynamic stills get right to the point: a standoff between police and a suspect, a robbery bust, or an arrest, as in “Making a collar.” Freedman embedded herself into these precincts to get these shots. The interviews collected in the published copy of Street Cops, which is placed at the end of the exhibition add a voice to the tumult of each scene.
In the claustrophobic “A cop has to be all things to all people” cops’ faces are cut off by the edges of the photo, a suspect’s face, a hat. In the background, windows are boarded and “For Lease” signs are posted. The scene is bleak. Because Freedman stands so close to the cluster of policemen, suspects, and civilians who appear to jut in and out of view the image is noisy and textured. The tension is palpable, and the scene feels dark even at midday. The restrained man, wearing a bucket hat, looks with concern beyond the frame. At the moment, something outside of sight seems to worry him more than being held by a group of cops.
Freedman captured moments by getting close to her subjects, drilling to a group’s emotional core. For her first major publication, Old News: Resurrection City, she documented the Poor People’s Campaign after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, both photographing and protesting economic and social injustice. Later, she followed circus performers for months before following the New York Fire Department in Harlem and the South Bronx as those neighborhoods burned. For Street Cops, Freedman followed beat cops for two years, not only documenting the violence and heartache, but capturing the officers’ love for their neighborhoods, as in “Being a cop, he said, is having the respect and friendship,” or the way they laughed on the job, such as “Riding up Third we picked up a job at a restaurant.” Getting this close to her subjects — the officers let their guard down around her even as the camera flashes in their eyes — builds trust and empathy at a time when NYPD approval ratings were at historic lows.
“Cops and firemen” show first responders, a crowd of firemen and police officers, surrounding a cruiser. An officer winces and struggles to hold himself up in the seat. It’s concerning because images rarely show the times when cops need saving or support and who intervenes. Breaking from traditional documentary photography or street photography, which creates and relies on distance, Freedman becomes intimate with her subjects. The distressed officer’s visage is clear in the middle of the night. Freedman uses lighting and angles to create tension and movement in each still. These aren’t static shots; the cops talk, emote, or move in some way: the two officers in “Man with a gun in there, they said,” are about to bust into an apartment to apprehend someone. Each image, both on their own and in tandem with the interviews collected, tells a story.
Street Cops recounts the uncertainty and despair of this time period well. The images are grouped by cases: child and family disputes, robberies, violence de-escalation, muggings and sexual assaults, neighborhood relations. It’s clear from the photos and interviews that cops are the first at any scene, even when a social worker or mental health professional would be more appropriate. The number of images involving children is staggering. In “The Cops picked up a little kid who looked lost” this is clearly the worst part of the job for the officers. The little boy sitting in the back of the squad car looks shell shocked rather than relieved to be found and about to be returned to his family.
These photos present violence and its costs to the soul, which cops know all too much about. “I hate to see kids play with guns, he said” shows a cop discouraging two boys from playing with guns. One child leans against the patrol car with his bike while the other holds a miniature pistol the size of his palm. Even if they’re imagining themselves as cops, it’s inappropriate and dangerous. In the car, a cop purses his mouth, ready to intervene and scold these two boys for playing around his vehicle. Again, facial expressions are the focal point of Freedman’s lens. She creates dissonance for the viewer. Laughing children with bright eyes play with toy weapons in front of the officer who knows the reality of a society obsessed with guns.
Six Black men are lined up against a wall in the Midtown South Precinct in “When I first came on the job I was idealistic.” The context for this arrest is unclear even in the text that Freedman pairs with the photo. All of the men have their backs to the camera and all except one, who looks at the officers, have their heads bowed. The officer’s profile shows as well as a sliver of the man being addressed. Freedman captures the cop’s face but doesn’t get near enough to these Black men to clearly see their expressions. We don’t get the perspectives of the men against the wall, just those of the officers. Freedman’s signature technique also becomes a blinder in this moment.
It’s worth noting that Freedman, a leftist activist, created what is essentially a pro-law enforcement series. In the prologue to her book, which is printed on the wall, she writes about her decision to photograph police: “I also wanted to show the tenderness and compassion of the good guys, the ones who care and try to help.” She interviews cops but no one they’ve arrested. While the book includes a few photos documenting the presence of Black men and women on the force, and she digs into sexism in the workplace, she says little about the overrepresentation of Black and Brown bodies encountering law enforcement. The volume prints quotes in which officers use the n-word to describe Black Americans. Ironically, the thing that makes the work so compelling is the thing that makes the work so troubling, Freedman’s proximity to the officers. Street Cops show ways New York’s relationship to policing has changed but also remained the same.
Jill Freedman Street Cops continues through October 30 at Daniel Cooley Fine Art.
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