Jill Freedman was featured in the Sunday City Section of the New York Times.

Jill Freedman

The New York Times


BACK in the 1970s, a gutsy blonde named Jill Freedman armed with a battered Leica M4 and an eye for the offbeat trained her lens on the spirited characters and gritty sidewalks of a now-extinct city.

Influenced by the Modernist documentarian Andre Kertesz, with references to the hard-edged, black-and-white works of Weegee and Diane Arbus, this self-taught photographer captured raw and intimate images, and transformed urban scenes into theatrical dramas.

Her New York was a blemished and fallen apple strewn with piles of garbage. Prostitutes and bag ladies walked the streets, junkies staked out abandoned tenements, and children played in vacant lots.

“The city falling apart,” Ms. Freedman said one day recently in recalling that era. “It was great. I used to love to throw the camera over my shoulder and hit the street.”

For reasons involving both changing photographic styles and her personal circumstances, Ms. Freedman faded from the scene in the late 1980s. But at a moment when much of the city is bathed in money and glamour, her work offers a vivid portrait of a metropolis defined by violence, poverty and disarray – a New York that once was.

At 68, Ms. Freedman is a petite, wiry-framed woman with the piercing blue eyes and the feisty, outspoken manner of her youth. Never married and with no children, she has been living since November in a one-bedroom walk-up in Harlem near Morningside Park, outfitted with worn furniture collected over a lifetime. Her companions are two stray cats, Lulu and Pooch.

Though none of her work hangs on the walls, many of her black-and-white photographs from more than 30 years ago are protected in thick portfolios, which she keeps in a shopping bag.


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