“I never had trouble walking up to people and asking them to take their picture,” photographer Arlene Gottfried (1950-2017) told The Guardian in 2014. Largely unknown to the public for the majority of her career, it was her black-and-white photographs of New York in the 1970s-80s that first sparked an interest in her work. Looking at them, it’s clear that Gottfried had a way with people as well as with images. “Arlene had a way of looking at the world with curiosity and love that was distinctly her own,” says Daniel Cooney, who runs a gallery of the same name currently showing Gottfried’s work.
Born in 1950, Gottfried grew up in Coney Island, living above the hardware store owned by her father and uncle. Relocating to Crown Heights aged nine with her family, she became fascinated by the Puerto Rican culture that surrounded her. In her teens, her father gave her an old camera and she began taking pictures in the neighbourhood. Later, Gottfried went on to study photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology and, after moving to Manhattan, she landed a job at at a photo agency, mainly shooting advertising and commercial work. But her real passion was wandering the streets.
In 2011, Gottfried told Paul Moakley of TIME: “My mother used to say ‘Arlene – don’t just wander!’ then I started wandering, but I got a camera because it gave it a little more meaning…” Through her lens, she empathetically captured heroin addicts living in the Lower East Side of New York. Here Gottfried discovered “a mixture of excitement, devastation and drug use,” she told the New York Times in 2016. “But there was more than just that,” she notes. “It was the humanity of the situation. You had very good people there trying to make it.”
While roaming the blocks of NYC, Gottfried also fell upon the gospel churches of Upper Manhattan, where she discovered her powerful voice and became a soloist gospel singer. Soon, she earned the title ‘The Singing Photographer’ after she ended up joining the gospel choir that became the subject of her first book, The Eternal Light, published in 1999.
Gottfried produced four other monographs in her lifetime: these included Midnight (2003), a project developed over the course of twenty years about her beloved friend Midnight as he struggled with mental health issues; Sometimes Overwhelming (2008), a lighthearted look at the eccentricity of NYC’s denizens; Bacalaitos & Fireworks (2011), which captures the vibrant Puerto Rican community of her neighbourhood in Brooklyn; and Mommie (2015), an intimate portrayal of three generations of women in her family.
It was via Paul Moakley that Cooney was first introduced to Arlene. “Paul is a strong advocate of Arlene’s work and I have known him for many years,” says Cooney. “He thought we might be a good fit and indeed he was right! What really stood out to me was Arlene herself.
“She walked in with a small suitcase on wheels full of her work and books. It was so sweet and unassuming. When she began pulling the prints out the suitcase I was amazed and delighted. What a surprise it was to see this beautiful, compelling and insightful work; it was all so perfect.”
“Arlene was complex to say the least,” he continues. “She was modest, shy and humble and she had a giant heart. She was also fiercely tenacious when it came to producing her work despite the lack of recognition. Arlene truly was a quiet powerhouse except when she was singing gospel – then she was just an outright powerhouse!”
Now on show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York, A Lifetime of Wandering features a selection of Gottfried’s life’s work including black-and-white, colour and Polaroid photographs spanning three decades from the 1970s-90s. “This exhibition is an overview of Arlene’s work, but it only represents a small portion of her archive,” explains Cooney.
“She truly was one of the best and most productive photographers of her generation with a life’s work that is deep and hugely expansive. I don’t think any one realises what a force she was and how much work she made. The show is an amazing opportunity for photography lovers to discover her.”
A Lifetime of Wandering will show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art at 508 – 526 West 26th Street, #9C New York, NY 10001 until April 28, 2018 danielcooneyfineart.com