In Sight

These photos show what it was like being in the NYPD in the 1970s and ’80s

Jill Freedman photographed New York back when it was all grit and grime, before it became whatever it is today. Some call it a playground for the rich or say that it has become “Disneyfied.” The high rent and cost of living have pushed people out of the city for some time now, even though there seems to have been a tiny respite brought on by the pandemic.

But people will probably always be drawn to New York, largely based on the mythology of its past. It has always been a shining beacon of everything raw and fun and creative. At least, that’s how I always thought of it and still do, even though I had to move away a few years ago. I still miss it.

From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

A cop stands with a man wearing a carrot suit. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

A wounded man in a chair. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Honestly, before I finally made it there I was magnetized by descriptions of a New York rife with artists living bohemian lives. But the New York I had read about or seen in movies didn’t really exist when I got there. Some of it was still intact, but mostly it had changed considerably from those descriptions. You will see the raw grit found in those books and movies in Freedman’s work, such as the newly reissued book “Street Cops” (Setanta Books, 2021), a true classic of documentary photography.

Freedman was known for her visceral street photography, the kind that “Street Cops” is full of. She made the photos in the book after spending two years following the members of two New York Police Department precincts. There’s nothing especially pretty in any of the photos. Rather, Freedman’s photos give us the messy bump and grind of a New York dealing with the inevitabilities of crime that come with being a densely populated metropolis. There are echoes of the work of Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model and even Weegee in these photographs.

Cops take disheveled man downstairs. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Satin pants. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Cops jump over a wall. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

I’m not even sure this kind of work would be possible today, given how our institutions, including the police, so tightly control access. But in “Street Cops,” Freedman takes us along as she photographs the NYPD responding to everything from crazy violent drunks to domestic disputes to crowd control during parades. It’s a wild ride through a city that has always captured our imaginations.

Mom and son. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Cops in a hallway. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Cops with an old woman. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Freedman’s work shows us the day-to-day craziness of what it was like being a cop in New York decades ago. But along with the craziness, her photos also show the humanity and humor that went hand-in-hand with the rough parts of the job. Freedman didn’t just work in New York; she lived there, too, so all of this was taking place essentially in her backyard.

A cop hugs an old lady. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

A cop and woman help an elderly woman. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

A cop with a wounded man on a sidewalk. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

“Street Cops” is one of seven books that Freedman produced during her prolific life as a photographer. Her work is included in many permanent collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, the International Center of Photography in New York, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

You can see more of Freedman’s work on her website, here. And you can find more information about, and buy, “Street Cops” here.

Cops work to resolve a dispute. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

Cop helps a seated man. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

A cop greets a resident. From “Street Cops,” published by Setanta Books. (Jill Freedman)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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Credits

Photo editing and production by Kenneth Dickerman