Cheryl Dunn Remembers Photographer Jill Freedman, Who Died this Week at the Age of 79
Jill Freedman was in a league of her own. Some people knew her work but many more should have. She was elusive and forthright and not beholden to anyone. She didn't really pursue commercial jobs to float her documentary work like many of her contemporaries and she did not kiss ass.
She embarked on documentary-activism projects because she needed to expose people's reality. Not because someone in some office thought of an idea and assigned it to her. She was on the streets observing, shooting and wielding her camera as an instrument of truth, compassion and justice. Her subjects loved her and she loved them. It was so obvious. She spent time, weeks, years, pushing for it, pushing for images filled with multiple profound stories in one frame. She flirted with cops and criminals alike, peeling down the layers of pretense. Even the perps gave her a smirk.
When I met her I knew of her work and hunted her down to be in my movie, Everybody Street. She was so badass, ballsy, funny, constantly cursing, swigging whiskey, always complaining that "the weed ain't like it was in the 70s." She was wild. We became fast friends and I brought her to Toronto to do Q&A at a film festival. The audience couldn't get enough of her. My hotel bar bill almost broke the bank but it was worth seeing this whole new generation of photography fans learning about her and adoring her. Everywhere I went, worldwide, she was always everyone's favorite. I pondered this. What was it? There was something about her that young people loved and I think it was her brutal honesty. She did not hold anything back in her photos and in her person.
People idolize because they want to possess qualities that their idol possesses or maybe they see things in them that they feel too. I had this with Jill, a woman in a man's field. I often complained about my early beginnings in photography and how sexist it was but then take it back 20 years to the 1970s... and just forget about it. She would tell me that her boyfriends couldn't deal. They would say, "When are you gonna come home and cook me dinner?" She was riding around in cop cars all night in Alphabet City and Harlem, so that was never gonna happen. The boyfriends, too intimidated by her focus and drive, would come and go and she did not give a shit. She would do the beat, shooting assorted gun battles, robberies, fires, violent crimes, come back to her Greenwich Village loft, put in some hours in the dark room, go down to the bar for a whiskey at 4 or 5am and take any man she wanted... "as long as they were gone in the morning," she would say.
Her house was filled with boxes and boxes of silver gelatin prints, thousands, and one more epic than the next. It was hard to believe she printed every one. Some of these were published in books but many of them not. She was an artist who spent her time and energy making the work not talking about it.
I can't stop talking about her. I don’t want anyone to stop talking about her. I want everyone that reads this to talk to someone about her. She deserves nothing less. —Cheryl Dunn
Jill Freedman passed away on October 9th, 2019 at the age of 79. Her work can be found in museums around the world and in seven books: Old News: Resurrection City, Circus Days, Firehouse, Street Cops, A Time That Was: Irish Moments, Jill’s Dogs, and Ireland Ever.
Images: A letter from a fireman to Jill Freedman included in a zine accompanying Everybody Street and a photography of Jill by Cheryl Dunn