1970s New York, Through the Eyes of Photographer Arlene Gottfried

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3_Arlene Gottfried_Angel & Woman, on Boardwalk Bri
Angel and Woman, Broadwalk Brighton Beach, NY 1976© Arlene Gottfried, Courtesy Galerie Bene Taschen

A retrospective of the late image-maker’s arresting photography has arrived in Europe, at Cologne’s Galerie Bene Taschen

Arlene Gottfried would often describe her photographic practice as “a life of wandering”. Born and raised in Coney Island in 1950 and then Crown Heights, Gottfried was interested in the people of New York and Brooklyn and felt compelled to document them for most of her life (when she died in 2017, she left behind some 15,000 photographs). Now, a retrospective of her work arrives in Europe, at Galerie Bene Taschen, Cologne.

The photographer credited growing up in Coney Island – “that was always an exposure to all kinds of people,” she said – with her ability to approach people on the street to take their photograph. Shooting since her teens, Gottfried was drawn to a variety of characters she spotted on the city’s streets – from “very neatly dressed” women to children watching over a hog roast – as well as her own group of friends and family. She would frequent Studio 54, whose eccentric clientele proved perfect subjects for her subtly humorous, sensitive portraiture.

The Cologne retrospective brings together images from Gottfried’s extensive archive and most well-known series, many of them dating back to the 1970s and 80s (though they gained recognition decades later). Bacalaitos and Fireworks, published in 2011, was a study of New York’s Puerto Rican communities; Gottfried would shoot street parades, gatherings, and the darker side of their life in New York as immigrants. She had been photographing these communities since they became her neighbours in Brooklyn in her youth. Describing one afternoon of wandering and taking photos, eventually coming across a group of Puerto Rican children, Gottfried said: “This was on a Sunday in the summer. I had gone out and I was looking for my friend actually, and I was walking around the Lower East Side with my camera and I had no destination. Then I see this parade of girls who had had their communion. So I saw this procession and I thought, ‘well I’ll go with them’.” This quietly inquisitive attitude came to define the image-maker’s extraordinary output.

While Gottfried’s street photography was defined by her innate ability to connect with both her peers and strangers through a camera, Mommie, a book published in 2015, was a more intimate affair. The publication collated photographs Gottfried had taken of her grandmother, mother and sister throughout her life. The powerful photographs ranged from a lighthearted image of her elderly grandmother in a Burger King or her sister standing in front of a flowering shrub to her mother in pain during the final stages of her life. Gottfried’s ability to create poignant snapshots of daily life – both her own and other people’s – makes her photographic archive one of contemporary photography’s most arresting.

Arlene Gottfried: Retrospective (1950–2017) is at Galerie Bene Taschen, Cologne, from July 3 – 30, 2019.