Inevitably, the spirit of Weegee haunts Jill Freedman’s photographs of New York street cops. Both worked in inky, matter-of-fact black and white. Both wanted to be at the scene of the crime while the blood was still wet. Both were unsentimental, tenacious, and tough. They didn’t look away, and they won’t let us ignore what they saw: New York at its rawest and scuzziest (the precinct walls are as ruined as tenement hallways). But Freedman, a rare woman in the field of photojournalism at the time (she died in 2019, at the age of seventy-nine), wasn’t interested in Weegee’s brand of hit-and-run tabloid photojournalism. Her pictures were made over a period of four years, from 1978 to 1981, during which she was virtually embedded with the police in two Manhattan precincts, Midtown South and the Ninth, headquartered at East Fifth Street, where the cops of “NYPD Blue” would be stationed more than a decade later. New York hit the skids financially in those years, and the city’s safety net, already badly frayed, gave out.
“Sometimes you wonder about yourself. What makes you go out looking?” Freedman wrote in a book of her “Street Cops” work. “What makes you go riding around Harlem or the South Bronx in the middle of the night?” If Freedman was channelling a cop in this text, she was also questioning her own impulses—but not her results, which are as immediate and fascinating as behind-the-lines war reportage. David Lynch could have staged some of the crime scenes that Freedman visited, but most of the images are less than sensational. Best friends, cousins, and spouses have beaten each other bloody for no good reason. A backdrop of witnesses is drawn by the spectacle but bored by its familiarity. Freedman’s book, originally printed in 1981 and recently reissued, includes brief texts that alternate the cops’ voices with her own. It’s not always clear who’s talking, but Freedman was as witty a writer as she was a photojournalist. “They see it all; I saw enough,” she wrote in a blog post promoting the collection’s initial release.
Freedman’s previous work had an activist bent. Her first book documented her weeks living in the shambles of Resurrection City, the Poor People’s Campaign encampment on the National Mall, in 1968. She was inclined to see the police as antagonists, upholders of a failed system of law and order. But, following a long stint with New York City firefighters (her book “Firehouse” was published in 1977), Freedman found herself less skeptical. Day by day, the police officers she followed won her over. After four years in their company, she came to like these guys and regard them with a wary respect. A show of photographs from “Street Cops,” currently at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, in Chelsea, opens with a grid of fifty-six small framed portraits of men (and a few women) in uniform, most smiling, none intimidating, nearly all of them white.
This makes Freedman’s series uneasy viewing for the modern spectator who considers the subject of American policing inextricable from the problem of its institutional excesses and abuse. Freedman was anxious to find a balance in her work. She wanted us to understand that her sympathy for the police was clear-eyed, not romantic. Still, one can’t help but sense that Freedman’s affection for the individual officers whom she trailed made it hard for her to see the systemic mechanisms that define what cops do. On one page of her book, cops are helping little old ladies and joking around with kids in the street. On another, a Black man is seated on the sidewalk, surrounded and menaced by officers, being “talked to.” (“It’s the only thing they understand,” a cop complains in the accompanying text.) What is disconcerting is that Freedman seems to give both sides of police work equal weight. She wasn’t a muckraker, and would never have considered herself an apologist, but her restraint here feels dishonest.
“Sometimes they remind me of kids,” Freedman writes of the police. “They believe in right and wrong, good and bad, good guys and bad guys, justice.” She seems to be critiquing their simplistic world view, but at other times she falls under its sway. Freedman dedicated her book to “the good guys, the ones who care and try to help.” It is impossible to imagine the modern-day N.Y.P.D. granting any photographer the access that it gave to Freedman. Her images of police work serve as a vital historical document. But “Street Cops” also suggests that, for the journalist wishing to get a clear picture, embedding with one’s subjects can be compromising.