Celebrated for her warm portraits of fast-vanishing New York communities, Gottfried was 66 when she passed away on 08 August
“Arlene had a unique vision of the world around her,” says gallerist Daniel Cooney. “She was kind and compassionate and she had a wonderful sense of humour, and all of it came through in her work. That’s what made her images so beautiful and unique.”
Born in the Coney Island district of New York and growing up in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn, Arlene Gottfried studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and initially found work with an advertising agency before going freelance for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Life, and Newsweek. But her true passion was for portraits shot on the fly, and often on the street, and it was for this work that she became celebrated, going on to publish five books – The Eternal Light (Dewi Lewis, 1991), Midnight (powerHouse Books, 2003), Sometimes Overwhelming (powerHouse Books, 2008), Bacalaitos and Fireworks (powerHouse Books, 2011), and Mommie (powerHouse Books, 2016).
Aged 66 when she died on 08 August, Gottfried cut her photographic teeth shooting in New York in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the city was more gritty, and perhaps more eccentric, than today. Open-minded and good-humoured, Gottfried was able to relate to her many and varied subjects, creating warm portraits of disparate communities from disco-lovers to gospel singers to body-builders. The Eternal Light is a portrait of a choir she first saw perform in an abandoned gas station in the Lower East Side, for example; eventually joining in, she discovered she had a talent, and ended up becoming a soloist.
“When my mother heard I was singing with a gospel choir she called me the ‘singing photographer’,” she stated on her website; evidently the epithet pleased her, because she adopted it to style herself ‘Arlene Gottfried – Singing Photographer’.
“I met Arlene some twenty years ago at the 1998 Houston Fotofest,” says publisher Dewi Lewis. “I can’t remember whether it was through a review session, but the work that I saw of hers was an extraordinary colour series about a gospel church. It had such energy and such engagement that I felt that it had to be published – and so in 1999 we published her first book, The Eternal Light.
“Arlene came on press with me in Verona – a great adventure both for her and for me. I remember it well. We met up in Arles and after a hectic week at the Rencontres we took the overnight train to Italy. I was travelling quite light but Arlene had brought along two large suitcases – one of which had a broken handle – and a third equally large bag. I seem to remember at least three changes of train that involved enormous numbers of steps, an enormous amount of lifting, and two extremely weary people.
“No matter how exhausting the journey became, Arlene never lost her enthusiasm or her sense of humour and at 6.30am we arrived in Verona and headed off to the printers. For the next four or five days we spent almost every hour of the day together – and I began to get to know her as a person and not just a photographer.
“Over the following years we would meet up on her occasional trips to Europe or on mine to the States. Arlene had joined The Eternal Light and become a singer in the choir. For her, this was clearly one of the most important things that she ever did – it gave her such joy, and became a major part of her life. She sang with various choirs, a chorus and eventually even became a soloist. Sadly I didn’t catch it, but at Look 3 Photography Festival in the States, in 2012, accompanied by a local gospel choir, she sang on stage during a projection of her photographs.
“Arlene had such a great warmth about her. She loved people though she was shy and, in terms of her work, extremely modest. She was also extremely kind and thoughtful. She never mentioned her illness to me, yet when the Manchester bombing happened in May this year she was in touch immediately to check that we were alright. And so – an amazing photographer but, more importantly, an amazing person. She will be missed.”
“Everyone who came to meet and to know Arlene were immediately struck by her warmth and ebullience,” says Daniel Power, founder of powerHouse Books. “She was however very shy when it came to talking and thinking about her photographic work. We managed to get her on camera to talk about her work when we made a short video for a fundraising campaign we did for the upholstery needed for her last book, Mommie: https://vimeo.com/
“I think she secretly knew the effect her photographs had on people – her warmth and joyous embrace of the everyday as well as at the extraordinary. That’s what made her photography so palpable, even now after so many years.”
“Sad news,” says the photographer John Darwell. “I remember days in Houston where we seemed to be in a constant state of laughter all day long. Her kindness and New York humour will be sorely missed. Arlene was the first person I ever met who described someone as a ‘Schmuck’, and in that particular case she was spot on. It still makes me smile.”
Midnight is an empathetic portrait of a friend called Midnight, who she first met in 1984. At that point a handsome companion who danced and performed in nightclubs, Midnight became increasingly erratic and was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Gottfried stood by him for two decades pockmarked by hospitalisation, jail, counselling, medication, and sudden disappearances, and create a tender portrait of the man. “The photographs make me sad because I know what a warm, gentle, intelligent soul Midnight is,” Gottfried stated, “and I also know how he suffered.”
Sometimes Overwhelming gathers together Gottfried’s early black-and-white street photography, while Bacalaitos and Fireworks records the Puerto Rican community of NYC, which Gottfried first got to know via a salsa lesson and went on to photograph for four decades, going on to visit the country several times. “It was such a big part of my life and a lot years went into it,” Gottfried told Time in 2011.
“You are a witness to certain things that are happy, sad and changes in the environment and those are all my experiences. If I got some memorable photographs and moments, then I feel very fortunate and I think that’s probably why I do it, and why the wandering has a meaning.”
Mommie is another intensely personal project showing three generations of her own family – her immigrant grandmother, her mother, and her sister. Gottfried is survived by her sister, Karen, and her brother Gilbert, who is a well-known comedian and voice actor. A memorial service will be held in New York City on 10 August.