Jill Freedman's striking Civil Rights photographs at Bonhams New York
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Jill Freedman's striking Civil Rights photographs at Bonhams New York
Jill Freedman, Untitled (Figure with club facing demonstrators), Poor People's Campaign, Resurrection City, Washington, DC, 1968; Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Photo: Bonhams.

NEW YORK, NY.- On hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, the self-taught photographer Jill Freedman, quit her job as a copywriter in New York, and went to Washington DC. It was there – where she lived in “Resurrection City”, a shantytown put up by the Poor People's Campaign (PPC) on Washington Mall – that she started to photograph “the invisible poor” who had come en masse to petition the government and to finally be seen. A selection of Freedman’s striking photographs is being offered at Bonhams in an online sale, Nothing But Soul: From New York City to Resurrection City, DC – Photographs by Bruce Davidson and Jill Freedman which runs from August 26 – September 4 in New York. The individual works range in estimate from $1,000-7,000.

Bonhams Head of Photographs, Laura Paterson, commented; “Jill Freedman stands alongside Bruce Davidson as one of the greats of documentary photography. Both captured scenes of racial and economic inequality with an intimacy and power which never strayed from a sense of deep commitment, care and humanity. The shocking murder of George Floyd and other recent racially motivated crimes, resulting in the strengthening of the Black Lives Matter Movement, have shone a spotlight on the fact that Davidson and Freedman's photographs continue to have powerful relevance today, some fifty years after they were taken.”

Jill Freedman (American, 1939 –2019) was one of the few female members of the renowned Magnum photos agency in the 1960s, before later leaving to join Archive Pictures. However, when she set off for Washington D.C in 1968, she was still little more than an enthusiastic amateur. An admirer of the intimate documentary work of photojournalists such as W. Eugene Smith, she was determined that her photographs, like Smith's, would create a more enlightened world.

In the spring of 1968, thousands of protestors came to Washington D.C. Though summoned by Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC), the movement belonged to the people. Known as Poor People's Campaign, it attracted participants from all over the country. Largely, though not exclusively black, these "the invisible poor" shared the conviction that America's progress towards racial equality and economic justice had stalled. In April 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated, just a few weeks before the PPC was due to arrive in Washington. Horrified by the murder and moved by the PPC's goals, Jill Freedman set off for the capital alongside the hundreds of other protestors, armed with her camera.

"Resurrection City" was a shantytown erected by the PPC in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The camp existed for six weeks before being cleared by police and bulldozed. Though photographers and television crews came and went, Freedmen made the camp her home. This resulted in some of the most powerful and intimate images of events, with the photographs offering a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who were the camp’s inhabitants – the unheralded heroes of the PPC who simply wanted to have a small share in the "American Dream".

Photographs from the series were published at the time in Life magazine, and later collected in Freedman's first book, Old News: Resurrection City, in 1970.

Also offered in the sale is a selection of photographs by the veteran American photographer, Bruce Davidson. A leading member of the famous Magnum Photos agency for more than 60 years, and an acclaimed photojournalist, Davidson is best known for his clear-eyed, but sympathetic, portrayals of communities on the margins. Freedman's photographs are a logical extension to Davidson's ground-breaking series "East 100th Street," for which he was awarded a McArthur Fellowship.

For two years from 1966-1968, Bruce Davidson photographed one block in East Harlem. He went back each day, knocking on doors and asking permission to photograph those he saw around him. He captured the daily lives of the largely black and Hispanic Americans that inhabited the area, capturing their innate dignity in the face of extreme poverty and squalor. His intimate and empathetic approach resulted in a series of extraordinary photographs, which were not only powerful images, but also led to improvements in the living conditions of inhabitants around the area of Harlem which Davidson so keenly captured.

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