New York

Jill Freedman, Family disputes are dangerous for cops, ca. 1978–81, gelatin silver print, 11 × 14".

Jill Freedman, Family disputes are dangerous for cops, ca. 1978–81, gelatin silver print, 11 × 14".

Jill Freedman

All cops are bastards! This antiauthoritarian rallying cry originated in England about a century ago and pervaded certain pockets of New Left activism during the 1960s and ’70s, a period when Jill Freedman (1939–2019) found her footing as a self-taught documentary photographer. She picked up a camera for the first time in 1966; two years later, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., she participated in the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, and documented the Resurrection City protest camp around the National Mall. Having witnessed mass arrests and police brutality, Freedman was far from being an apologist for law enforcement. A decade later, however, she embarked on a three-year ride-along with officers from Manhattan’s Midtown South and East Village precincts.

“Street Cops 1978–1981,” Freedman’s exhibition here, featured more than fifty gelatin silver prints from the eponymous series, which was originally published as a book in 1981. A central wall in the gallery displayed an eight-by-seven grid of police portraits—with few people of color and women pictured—along with the introductory text from Freedman’s volume. “Street cops is about a job, being a cop,” it begins. Her aesthetic justification for the project takes a similarly unvarnished tone: “I hate the violence you see on TV and in the movies. I wanted to show it straight, violence without commercial interruption, sleazy and not so pretty without its make-up.”

The show presented images of seedy stairwell arrests, the aftermath of barroom brawls, open-air fights, and other moments of dramatic police tension. Yet one of the most compelling works on view was also the most visually complex. In this picture, Freedman snaps a Black man getting arrested while surrounded by cops and bystanders. A slight fish-eye distortion gives the photograph an odd sense of claustrophobia as Freedman deftly makes herself both central and peripheral to the action. An accompanying caption, taken from Freedman’s book, described the chaos before us: “A cop has to be all things to all people. It is the most diversified job there is. You have to be doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist, social worker, parent, teacher, nursemaid, priest.” This statement reflects the inappropriately oversize role law enforcement has had in virtually every aspect of American culture and only reinforces the argument for defunding the police, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump’s race-baiting presidency. A sense of responsibility—the need to check unchecked power—runs through Freedman’s project.

Yet Freedman’s officers look far more physically vulnerable than the militarized forces of the twenty-first century. Rather than riot shields and flak jackets, the paunchy cops Freedman captures sport short sleeves; in one image, a pair of grinning lawmen revealed tees underneath their uniforms with a winged skull—a cartoonish memento mori that resembles the street-gang logo from the 1979 film The Warriors. When Freedman chooses to emphasize the strength of her subjects, her compositional choices are more symbolic, reflecting the changing racial and gender profiles of the NYPD. A photo captioned “When women came on the job I said I’d never work with one” showed a Black woman behind the wheel of a cruiser with a cigarette in hand, smiling up at her white male partner, who is speaking to her through the car window. In a portrait of a lone female officer, Freedman shot her from the bottom of a stairwell looking up, monumentalizing her stance.

“There really are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys like to hurt people,” writes Freedman. While she doesn’t couch these observations in strict racialized terms, her images reveal certain prejudices—a handful of cops palling around with a young white bank robber versus a sole white officer directing a handful of Black and Latinx youths to place their hands against a paddy wagon. The photographs also show how “authority” and complicity are internalized and projected. One picture featured three officers breaking up a family dispute, the scene unfurling before a brick wall painted with an image of the Puerto Rican flag. Written next to it is bicentenario sin colonias (Bicentennial without colonies), a revolutionary slogan of the 1970s Puerto Rican independence movement. “Out there there’s disputes, you separate them,” Freedman records in her book. “Then you go home and act just the opposite. You do what they do. You hear yourself saying the same things, being the same asshole. It drives you crazy.”