Jill Freedman, Street Cops 1978-1981 @Daniel Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 105 black and white photographs, framed and matted, and hung against white and light grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1978 and 1981. 56 of the prints are 7×5 inches in size, and are hung in a single grid. The other 49 prints are sized either 8×10 or 11×14 inches (or the reverse). (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work, entitled Street Cops, was published by Harper & Row in 1981. Setanta Books has recently published a reissued version (here).

Comments/Context: The tumultuous events of the past few years have brought the broad subject of policing firmly back into the public spotlight. In a place like New York city, where police presence on the streets is an everyday occurrence, there is now a heightened sense of tension and friction that has been subtly amplified by changing perspectives on how the police do their jobs. Citizens are asking hard questions and demanding change, and the police feel a bit more on the defensive, and this combination of actions and reactions has led to more charged distance between the police and those they are there to serve and protect.

It is against this simmering contemporary backdrop that the opportunity to rediscover Jill Freedman’s excellent series Street Cops from the late 1970s feels particularly relevant and timely. Even with the recent decline in the city stemming from Covid-related closures and departures, the 1970s-era New York in Freedman’s pictures was far grungier, with a steady stream of hustlers, hookers, addicts, and domestic disputes to keep the beat cops busy. Freedman made her photographs over a period of four years, following along on the daily rounds of the men and women from the Ninth precinct. She was essentially an embedded photojournalist, but with perhaps more trust and camaraderie than that moniker might normally imply, riding around in police cars and documenting the action at crime scenes, accidents, and arrests.

This body of work was last on view in New York roughly a decade ago, and this show expands on that earlier presentation. It begins with a massive grid of faces, each image a headshot of one of the working policemen and women. The array is a taxonomy of everyday New York in the late 1970s, with most of the people giving off a surprisingly approachable vibe. The styles of the times favored bushy moustaches, and while most of the officers were white men, the ranks were decently diverse. Badge numbers and names are visible, and the overall mood is one of relaxed comfort – these cops are generally open and friendly, clearly at ease with both Freedman and their surroundings. In contrast to the prevailing stereotypes and reputations of the police as combative, biased, and often unnecessarily violent, Freedman’s faces offer a consistent sense of compassion and dedication that the photographer felt was being overlooked.

The rest of the exhibit places Freedman in the position of a witness with privileged insider access, and as seen here, her pictures document a parade of individual incidents and encounters. She watches as various suspects are questioned, searched, and in many cases cuffed or rousted, in hallways, on stairwells, and on darkened streets, and depending on the intensity of the situations and the behavior of the participants, the overall state of mind can range from playful and easygoing to much more serious and heated. Freedman arrives to the aftermath of car crashes, stabbings, bar fights, and spousal arguments, and steps into the crying, arguing, shouting, and bloodied faces that are all too common.

While photographers like Weegee and Enrique Metinides were well known for their ability to voyeuristically capture the often gruesome details of murders, accidents, and deaths in urban life, Freedman’s pictures nearly always turn back to the policemen and women and what they are doing amidst all the nearby chaos. Very few of her photographs document the real physicality of chase or conflict, but instead center on the human diplomacy of mediation and the diffusing of overwrought emotions. Freedmen sees the policemen and women getting in the middle of things, listening, sorting out opposing viewpoints, and patiently searching for amicable solutions or rounding up those who were causing the trouble.

Even in the most violent of circumstances, many of these pictures center on a gesture or expression that is rooted in warmth or compassion, with laughter, disbelief, skepticism, and concern visible in different kinds of confrontations and interactions. To say that Freedman’s police images are filled with humor is perhaps surprising, but there is plenty of subtle comedy at work in her images, most of it rooted in kindness, sympathy, and connection. Cops slap hands with suspects, laugh with a guy sitting in a trash can, and make precinct house jokes with matching t-shirts and bulging uniforms. Similarly, kids provide many moments of playful tenderness, from cops watching out for vulnerable children caught in domestic disputes, lost, or more generally on the run to more rowdy kids casually sitting on police cars, marking them as part of the community. Freedman’s photographs remind us that this is all part of the job, and that the most successful cops are deeply woven into the rhythms of their streets.

As a photographic project, Street Cops has aged extremely well, and the durable success of Freedman’s images is rooted in her eye for the people and how they behave in these charged moments. Nearly every image on the walls here resonates with energy and attentiveness, with Freedman invariably noticing that passing glance or twist of body language that both enlivens a mundane scene and humanizes the participants. In the end, Freedman reminds us that policing isn’t the abstraction of the law, but the messiness of real people wading into everyday conflicts and doing their best to sort them out.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The small portraits are $500 each, while the rest of the prints are $5500 each, regardless of size. Freedman’s work isn’t widely available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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