Street photographer Jill Freedman, who offered an immersive look into the worlds of circuses, protest movements, and the darker sides of New York City, died Wednesday at 79 in Manhattan. Her cousin told the New York Times that the cause was cancer-related complications.
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.
She published seven books of her work in addition to having gallery exhibitions and photojournalism work. Her first book—Old News: Resurrection City (1971)—chronicled her experience living in the titular protest encampment on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and working for the Poor People’s Campaign. Her subsequent books reflected the variety of her photography projects, with titles like Circus Days (1975), Firehouse (1977), and Street Cops (1982).
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.
Steven Kasher, Freedman’s longtime dealer, said in a statement sent to Artsy:
Jill Freedman was a true maverick. I will miss her. Her pictures of everyday New York people are as gritty and gutsy as anyone’s. Her great book, Madhattan, is yet to be published. If it is, it will be a revelation.