Jill Freedman Tells Us How She Got to Photograph Warhol and Muhammad Ali
From Studio 54 to the South of France, Jill Freedman found unconventional ways to photograph the world's most famous faces.
All images courtesy Jill Freedman
Photographer Jill Freedman didn’t accept many assignments over the course of her career. In her words, she wouldn’t “kiss ass” with editors, and she had a low tolerance for bad behavior on set. She tells VICE she remembers one shoot where she was hired to photograph an up-and-coming actor who’d been cast in a Broadway play. From the start of their session, Freedman says the actor was incredibly rude and high-maintenance. She abruptly stopped shooting and told him, “Listen, if all this doesn’t take off, you’re still a waiter. Now cut the crap, and let’s get this done.” Afterward, someone complained to her editor.
The few assignments Freedman did take, or that she self-commissioned, are the exception in her vast portfolio. But these portraits, like so many of her photographs, offer nuanced glimpses of some of the 20th century’s most notable figures. Freedman’s photos of luminaries like Gloria Steinem and Andy Warhol are rarely straightforward. They show celebrities going about their everyday, albeit glamorous lives in ways that help the viewer relate, blending straightforward documentary photography with subtle symbolism.
A photo of Muhammad Ali holding a chocolate bar was taken by Freedman at an ABC television studio appearance in the 1970s. It was her first time being hired to shoot a major public figure, but Freedman says she was pleased to photograph Ali because he was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Ali fought some of his most epic matches in the 70s, including The Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974, and actively promoted an aggressive, dominant public image. But in Freedman’s portrait, the fighter looks friendly and carefree, his signature crisp rice chocolate bar in hand.
Photographing Gloria Steinem at Ms. Magazine proved challenging because Freedman says she had to make “a bunch of broads sitting around in an office” look interesting. But Steinem is captivating in the image. The eyes of every other woman in the room are trained on her, and the intensity of her expression and the way she underscores her speech with her hands points to her leadership. An all-female magazine staff was radical for the time, too. According to an oral history of Ms. published by New York magazine in 2011, before its creation, “few women ran magazines, even when the readership was entirely female, and they weren’t permitted to write the stories they felt were important; the focus had to be on fashion, recipes, cosmetics, or how to lure a man and keep him interested.” Ms. broke the mold with stories for women by women.
Freedman’s dreamy shot of Dizzy Gillespie shows the musician rehearsing with his Dream Band and Bop Five at Lincoln Center in 1981. The horn player had pioneered bebop decades earlier, and by the 80s, he was leaning into his eminence by forming supergroups with talented players, blurring musical genres. Freedman was an avid music fan, and she was there to take photos for JazzAmerica, a TV series chronicling the history of jazz. She says she couldn’t move around to get various angles during showtime, because she’d interrupt video documentation of the performance. But during rehearsals, she could get as close as she liked, and the result became images like this one, with spare surroundings and hazy light glinting off Gillespie’s trumpet, imparting a feeling of divinity and serenity.
Freedman’s photo of B.B. King at the 1973 New Orleans Blues and Jazz Festival was self-assigned, and she managed to snag an up-close-and-personal shot of the musician without a press pass. “I wanted to go. I loved the music, so I went… How’re you gonna get to do it if you don’t go?” she says. The image of King conveys a personable, commanding presence, channeled by his outstretched hand. “There were five different sound stages in this little park. I just was standing there,” she says. Freedman didn’t get to meet the blues legend, but adds, “What would I say? ‘Oh, you’re terrific?’ That’s ridiculous. Better that I get the picture.”
Freedman was sent by New York magazine to photograph writer Studs Terkel, who’s pictured here with a sandwich and coffee from a nearby lunch cart. The two were old acquaintances. Terkel had interviewed Freedman about her photo book documenting the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign for his 1974 book Working, which analyzed the relationship between people and their professions. Freedman says Terkel was a “good old, down-to-earth, working class guy,” and their familiarity seems apparent in her portrait of him. He gazes at something out of frame, seemingly forgetting Freedman’s camera.
A portrait of actress Ann-Margret gazing directly into Freedman’s lens was snapped at the Cannes Film Festival in the mid-70s. She says the actress is “a real trooper” who’s been acting and singing for more than 50 years since her debut on The Jack Benny Program in 1961.
Freedman also shot this fly-on-the-wall photo of Magnum Photos and International Center of Photography (ICP) co-founder Cornell Capa in Southern France at the renowned Les Rencontres d’Arles photo festival. The two of them were old friends, and Freedman associates this snapshot of Capa with the era in which he was trying to get ICP off the ground, sourcing work from photographers and searching for a permanent home for his collection. “He conned pictures out of me. Oh, he was good,” Freedman says.
The artist Isabelle Collin Dufresne, known by her stage name Ultra Violet, posed for Freedman in Oyster Bay, Long Island, while filming a movie in 1975. Dufresne was mentored by Salvador Dali, before becoming one of Andy Warhol’s so-called superstars. In Freedman’s portrait, she holds Da Vinci’s The Last Supper—an interesting allusion to her kinship with Warhol, since decades later she told The Huffington Post they both were interested in religious iconography, and that shortly before Warhol’s death in 1987, he was working extensively with that subject matter. “They were Last Suppers, Madonnas, words from the scripture, a punching bag with the face of Christ, and things like that,” she says.
George Wallace—the former governor of Alabama known for calling for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his 1963 inaugural address—was visiting Brussels, Belgium, while Freedman happened to be vacationing in Europe with her boyfriend. Though she didn’t like his politics, Freedman wanted to take his picture. Her photograph of Wallace peers into his motorcade, exposing a powerful man swaddled by expensive suits and bodyguards in a chauffeured car.
Freedman’s photo of a public memorial to John Lennon in Central Park similarly milks meaning from its environment. Taken a day after a silent vigil was widely observed for the slain singer, the photo conveys a quiet grace. “I was just walking in the park and saw that,” Freedman remembers. “It had just happened.”
Freedman hated the disco music at Studio 54, because she worried DJs would replace live musicians, but she says she used to force herself to go, because “I always got a good picture.” In this shot, Debbie Harry poses in front of her blown-up cover photo for Interview magazine. Andy Warhol, his face wrinkled with age, makes a cameo in the foreground, leaning into a separate conversation. Like so many of Freedman's photographs, the shot conveys an extremely specific sense of time and place—a bit of gritty, glamorous vintage New York preserved in amber.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Cameron Cuchulainn on Instagram.