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LA Weekly
© Arlene Gottfried, self portrait

The Extraordinary Work of Arlene Gottfried

Cathleen Berenyi
Cathleen Berenyi
+November 04, 2019

The work of Arlene Gottfried (1950 – 2017), one of the finest New York city street photographers, is being celebrated through two different exhibitions in France and in the States.

The fine arts museum of Nancy (Musée des Beaux Arts de Nancy) presented a collection of 80 photographs, La rue nous appartient, New York 1970-1980, shot in colors (Cibachrome film) and black and white which describe the multicutural and vibrant context of the streets of New York between the 70’s and the 80’s. The exhibition, organized in two sections, is based on two of Gottfried’s photo-books in particular : Sometimes Overwhelming - black and white portraits in ode to New York eccentric inhabitants, mostly living in popular districts or decadent areas and Bacalaitos & Fireworks which depicts the life of the Puerto Rican community (the so called Nuyorican culture) situated between Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.

The work, exhibited in the Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery of Chelsea, New York, titled After Dark concerns some of her powerful pictures documenting the nightlife of the city, its actors during the 80’s, its darks streets, nightclubs and illicit drug dens of the Lower East Side area. The curator Cooney, who represented the artist already before her death, made extensive work in archiving and organizing of all the photographic material : a production of more than 15.000 images and 5 monographs edited.

Arlene Harriet Gottfried was born and raised in the multicultural Brooklyn district, she spent her early childhood in the Coney Island area. Daughter of a family of immigrant Jews, her father Max Gottfired owned a hardware store and her mother Lilian Zimmerman was a housewife ; her younger brother is the comedian and voice actor Gilbert Gottfried, famous for giving his voice to parrot’s Iago in Disney’s Aladdin. When she was 9 years old, her family moved to Crown Heights, a more popular neighborhood which later became a constant source of inspiration for her work. She was still a teenager when her father gave her an old 35mm camera : she took her first pictures with it during the Woodstock festival in 1969.

Graduate from the Institute of Technology in Manhattan in 1972, she joined the evening photography class where she was the only woman. Once finishing her studies, she moved to Manhattan's the Alphabet city neighborhood, and held a job in an advertising agency. She soon became a freelancer and started to publish her images in magazines such as the New York Times, LIFE, Newsweek, Fortune, and The Independent. Gottfried’s great talent became noticed during her 50s, sixteen years before her death due to complications of breast cancer. Her unusual career, followed her passion more than a lucrative, financial project. The fact she was a woman in a male-dominated industry contributed for sure to her late success but also her humble and unselfish attitude in building contacts and networking.

FFU image
© Arlene Gottfried

Gottfried had a shy, discrete personality as much as her approach to the world was full of empathy and heart. Accustomed to living in the cultural diversity, she has never been afraid getting close to strangers, even in tragic or sad situations. She had the impressive ability to create an intimacy connection with her subjects, maintaining a profound respect and identity with them. The integrity of her work has a unique, personal style. She owned a fresh and spontaneous vision of things, full of humor and a lively sensitivity.

FFU image
© Arlene Gottfried

Her pictures testify of a Big Apple before the gentrification, an old New York which doesn’t exist anymore, pulsating of weirdness, bizarre characters, festivities, madness, decay but also joyfulness and energy. Those years were connoted by a strong, energy and expression of sexual freedom (which disappeared after the advent of HIV) that came along the rise of Disco and R&B, the glamour of the nightlife, the boldness and creativity of the gay and afro communities. Gottfried documented the wild nightlife of the city in those clubs that now became legendary : the Studio 54, Le Clique, Paradise, GG’S Barnum, Empire Roller Disco. She also took portraits of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Rick James.

Her connection with music was a constant of her career. In 1984 she became close friend with a club dancer called Midnight, their deep friendship and his life had been documented during 18 years and became the subject of one of her published photobook. Her first publication, Eternal Light, immortalised the Eternal Light community singers, a Harlem Gospel Choir placed in an abandoned gas station. She ended up becoming a choir member herself and her mother renamed her "the singing photographer".

Cathleen Berenyi
Cathleen Berenyi
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