New York City

Firehouse by Jill Freedman

I nearly called this book “You Shoulda Been Here”, because no matter how much time I spent driving up to the South Bronx and Harlem and sitting around waiting for some action, the first words upon my arrival were those. You shoulda been here. Five minutes before you got here, ten minutes after you left.

So I moved into the back seat of the Chief’s car, right there on the apparatus floor between the truck and the engine. Females were not allowed unescorted after 10 at night, and they certainly could not sleep in the dorm, like male reporters could…

So for over a year I slept on the back seat, and I stayed at the firehouse six days and nights around the clock. Then home for two nights, processing film and making prints.

Then back to the car. It was cold and it wasn’t a posturepedic, but I got to go to all the jobs in my bed.

Like most kids, I wanted to be a fireman. I guess I forgot about it when I found out I was a girl. I didn’t even remember it a few years ago, when I photographed a fireman who saved a cat. But the picture stayed with me, and became one of my favorites.

I started noticing firemen a lot more, liking something about them. And gradually I began wanting to photograph them.

I’ve always admired them. They were for me the antithesis of all the meanness and cruelty you see in the papers and on the streets. There was an altruism in the very idea of a fireman that interested me. I wanted to see what they were like. What kind of guy will risk his neck for someone else’s? Will run into burning buildings, and feel responsible for every stranger who needs help ? You see them sick. Throwing up, passing out, black running out of their noses, even dying. And always coming back for more, welcoming it, playing the fire like a bull. Loving the action. Who are these guys?

They are different than most of us. They are always there when you need them.They care about people all of the time, not just during wars or blackouts or disasters. All of their energy is positive. Their job is to protect people. And so they are always there; they will come when no one else will. People know this, and when there is an emergency they think of firemen. They call them for fights, for accidents, broken pipes, lost kids, no heat, cats up trees, no water, for lonely and sick old people. Frightened people. And they always come. That’s their job. No one is afraid of a fireman.

They are like soldiers in that they will die for someone else, or someone else’s property.They are not like soldiers in that they will not kill. They are there to help people, not to hurt them. They bring life instead of death. Sometimes they are too late, and they always take it personally. “We lost two,” they say. We.

They are never sentimental. Drunks are sentimental, and war movies, where people live in the past. A fireman’s life is too immediate, too real for sentimentality. They are not modest, but they get a little embarrassed when you say hero. And if you ask one about a rescue he made, he walks away saying he was just doing his job. “That’s what I get paid for.” And how much do you pay a man’s widow when he’s bought it?

Because firefighting is the most dangerous job there is. You give it everything, and you take a beating. You have to be fast, and you have to be ready. And you have to know that the other men are, too. And so there’s a closeness that grows out of being in combat together. Knowing that your life depends on the man working next to you. Sure that if you’re ever in trouble, he’s coming for you. Sharing those moments that only someone who has been there can understand.
Like how that black smoke feels in your throat. The panic when your windpipe starts closing. What it’s like to be sick from the smells or the pity. The joy of bringing someone back, especially a child. Or failing. The scariness, crawling into blackness, wearing a heavy mask you can’t see out of, knowing that when your bell goes off you have to get out. Wondering where out is. The fear. The heat. Burning your ears crawling under beds to rescue babies which turn out to be dolls. Having it suddenly light up between you and the window. Or on the roof, the stairwell an incinerator.

Can you make it to the ladder, and is it there? The sounds of glass breaking, muffled shouts, somebody’s bell ringing somewhere off in the dark. Will you get out in time?

So here are firemen as I saw them. New York City firefighters. Not as front page spectaculars, but rather as they are every day, in the firehouse and out on the street. Handsome men, whose boots look good on their legs. Kids trust them. Buffs hound them. Junkyard dogs adopt them. Because they are something special.

Here are real men, and let me tell you, they cry, all right. And they joke around, hugging, kissing, and they mean it. They love each other and boy, is it nice to be around that. I hope a lot of kids see these pictures. There’s no way you can call a fireman a sissy. Let kids see that truly strong men are also soft and gentle; that men can love and respect each other; that being nice instead of nasty makes you feel good. And not a gun in sight.

Being with firemen re-kindled all kinds of unrealistic dreams. They showed me that not all wars are bad. Wars on rats and roaches aren’t bad. Wars on hunger would be nice, or on loneliness; building cities instead of destroying them. As it is, I saw the only firefights I can respect, fought in the only uniform I like. If men must fight wars, let them fight for life instead of death. Let them fight for their own species, not for other men’s ambition or profit. If we must have heroes, then let them be live ones. And if we give out medals, let them be for saving life, not for taking it.

As one woman in the South Bronx put it, “Thanks, firemen. There’s a lot of children live here.”

Street Cops by Jill Freedman


Street Cops is about a job, being a cop.
And it’s about city life; some citizens survive it, some don’t.
The city is New York, it could have been Tokyo, London, Paris, Rome.
There are victims, there are cops, the job is the same.
These are New York City cops.

The good ones are street smart, they know who’s who and what’s what.
They see it all. I saw enough.
What I learned with the cops is there really are good guys and bad guys,
and the bad guys like to hurt people.
Sometimes it’s better not to know too much.
Sometimes it isn’t. This story wasn’t easy.

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.
I also wanted to show the tenderness and compassion of the good guys,
the ones who care and try to help.
Moments of gentleness, good times as well as bad.

That’s why I love photography.
I can catch a moment, print it, and share it with you.

I will also be sharing Street Cops at the John Jay College President’s Gallery from September 13 to October 26, 2012. For more information, click here.

Street Cops at John Jay College by Jill Freedman

The John Jay College President’s Gallery, located at 59th Street and 10thAvenue, New York, presents the inaugural show of its Fall 2013 Season, JILL FREEDMAN: STREET COPS curated by art historian Dr. Lisa Farrington of the John Jay Faculty and Independent Curator Beverly Morris; and generously supported by donor John Bergman. The show will be open to the public from September 13th through October 26th, 2012 with an opening reception on Thursday September 13th from 6-8PM.

The vintage photographs in this exhibition are from the famed collection “Street Cops” photographed in the late 1970s by award-winning fine arts and documentary photographer Jill Freedman. A petite powerhouse, Freedman quite literally inserted herself into active crime scenes in order to take these gritty photos at a time when New York City was just as gritty. Freedman prowled the streets of Manhattan with her camera during the age of the ‘70s blackout and subsequent rioting and looting, when New York was allegedly “broke” and drugs, crime, and homelessness were rampant.

Evidently fearless, Freedman documented the activities and personalities of New York’s finest during this epoch. Her images capture a long lost “cop” persona that is very different from the one we are accustomed to today—who identify themselves with the insignia currently painted on NYPD squad cars:  “CPR: Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect”. Freedman’s cops are a different breed. They came of age in the wake of the Knapp Commission and widespread police corruption. Sensitive to the politics surrounding the Commission, they patrolled New York’s toughest neighborhoods during one of its most difficult decades; they knew the names of the folks who lived on their beats and about whom, often paradoxically, they cared.

Featured in JILL FREEDMAN: STREET COPS are 34 vintage silver gelatin prints generously lent by the photographer to dovetail with the theme of “Art for Justice” which is essential to the exhibition schedule of the President’s Gallery and the Anya and Andrew Shiva Art Gallery at John Jay College, as well as to the mission of the College more broadly, “Educating for Justice.”

Jill Freedman is a highly respected New York documentary photographer whose award-winning work is included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, George Eastman House, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, among others. Jill Freedman is best known for her NYC street and documentary photography, recalling the work of André Kertész, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She has published seven books: Old News, Circus Days, Firehouse, Street Cops, A Time That Was, Jill’s Dogs, and Ireland Ever.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The President’s Gallery is part of John Jay College of the City University of New York, a non-profit 501(c)(3) institution. The Gallery is free and open to the public. Please stop at the College Security Desk for access. Hours are Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM unless closed for a special event. For more information, please contact the Co-Curator, Beverly Morris at 917-847-9915 or call the Department of Art & Music at 212-237-8929.