Art & Photography / The Story Behind The Image

The Photographer Who Celebrated Life and Love in all its Guises

As a new show about street photographer Arlene Gottfried opens in New York, its curator reveals the stories behind her arresting portraits

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Girls at Beach© Arlene Gottfried

Last year marked the passing of remarkable street photographer Arlene Gottfried, a woman who quietly but resolutely devoted her life to the tender and insightful study of the world around her, celebrating difference and diversity at every turn. In a famous interview with Time magazine in 2011, Gottfried declared that her images were the result of “a lifetime of wandering”, a phrase that now forms the title of a new show, opening today at the Daniel Cooney gallery in Gottfried’s native New York. Conceived by Cooney and Gottfried in early 2017, the exhibition’s focus is a diverse array of black-and-white, colour and rare Polaroid images taken over three decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s. “We were supposed to spend the summer working on the show but we postponed it when Arlene’s health started to deteriorate,” the gallerist and curator explains. “After she passed away in August, I wanted to move ahead with it and her family enthusiastically agreed.”

Thereafter began an emotional curation process, centred, Cooney tells us, on selecting works that he felt best reflected Gottfried’s “truest vision as an artist”. “For me, Arlene was at her best when she was connected to her subject’s ‘humanness’,” he says, referring to the rich cast of characters that pepper the photographer’s imagery. “She photographed many people from underrepresented cultures, which is a big focus in the show. Sometimes her subjects are in vulnerable positions, sometimes they’re having fun but looking unkempt, but she always loved them and presented them to the world with affection and depth.” And indeed, be it a close friend reclining on a bed or a starry-eyed couple encountered on the street, each of Gottfried’s protagonists offer something of themselves to the photographer with piercing candidness demonstrative of a deep mutual respect.

Here, as the exhibition is unveiled, we sit down with Cooney to hear the stories behind some of its most arresting pictures, all of which serve to paint a vivid picture of Gottfried’s heartwarming, witty and unique worldview.

Self Portrait, c. late 1970

“This is a rare self portrait by Arlene. She was extremely humble and not likely to be photographed, let alone to create a self portrait. But here she was having a little fun, dressing up and posing for herself! She didn’t really like to talk about herself either; she shared herself with her work instead, letting us know who she was with her camera.”

Midnight on Bed, c. late 1980s

“Arlene met Midnight during the summer of 1984 and continued to photograph him for 20 years, publishing a number of her portraits of him in a beautiful book by PowerHouse in 2003. Midnight suffers from schizophrenia and has been institutionalised many times during his life, and Arlene was able to see the gentle, sensitive soul of a troubled friend. This particular photograph is special because it’s never been published or exhibited before, and is the only known Polaroid that Arlene made of Midnight.”

Rick James, New York, c. 1981

“In the early 80s, Arlene was hired to photograph some of the Motown artists, including Rick James, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder – images of all three are included in the exhibition. The man that hired her remembers that she also made personal work while on commission, and found time for some dancing: she was a huge fan of the Motown sound. This is another fantastic image that’s never been shown before.”

Couple, c. late 1970s

“I had never seen this photograph before I curated the show. When I came across it in Arlene’s archive I had to stop and take it in as there are so many layers to it. It’s tender and sweet; the embrace speaks volumes. It makes me wish Arlene was here to share the story of her experience with these beautiful people.”

Albino Musicians, c. 1980s

“Arlene had this photograph hanging above her kitchen table in her apartment at the Westbeth Artists’ Housing in New York. It was a part of her daily life and is one of the core images of this show. It’s not a well known image from her life’s work, but it’s one that she loved.”

Amores, c. early 1980s

“This striking photograph of two lovers is from Arlene’s Bacalaitos & Fireworks series. She lived on the Lower East Side and often photographed the Puerto Rican community there. She wrote in her introduction to the monograph of this series, ‘One night I heard a street vendor on the corner of Avenue C and East 3rd Street calling, “Bacalaitos and fireworks”: bacalaitos, a fried cod fish indigenous to Puerto Rico, and fireworks, for the Fourth of July weekend. This juxtaposition became etched in my mind – representative of an immigrant population on the streets of America.’”

Mommie Kissing Bubbie, Delancey Street, 1990s

“This is a very special image from Arlene’s book Mommie, a tender look across three generations of women in her family as they experience life and loss together. It includes photographs of Arlene’s grandmother, Minnie Zimmerman, who lived to be 104; Arlene’s mother, Lillian Gottfried, and her sister, Karen Gottfried. This photograph shows her mother kissing her grandmother goodbye in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The series ends with Karen giving birth to her son Graham, the beginning of a fourth generation.”

Arlene Gottfried: A Lifetime of Wandering is at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York from February 28 – April 28, 2018.