Arlene Gottfried: A Lifetime of Wandering

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Photography by Arlene Gottfried

As an exhibition of her New York street photography opens in Cologne, we catch up with the astute image maker to uncover the stories behind some of our favourite works

Photographer Arlene Gottfried has always been an avid people watcher. Born in Brooklyn in 1960, as a child she was fascinated by the diverse communities populating the New York borough. "My mother used to say, Arlene – just don't wander!" she once explained in an interview with TIME Magazine. "Then I started wandering, but I got a camera because it gave it a little more meaning... A life of wandering is really what it all is."

Such a statement belies an impressive, award-winning career, punctuated by contracts for the likes of The New York Times Magazine, Life Magazine and The Independent, but it touches upon an important truth – that much of Gottfried's success lies in her propensity for being in the right place at the right time, combined with her astute eye for spotting the remarkable among the everyday. 

"A life of wandering is really what it all is" – Arlene Gottfried

Now, a new exhibition of her work at Hardhitta Gallery in Cologne gives us the chance to explore Gottfried's street photography in greater depth, showcasing a series of black-and-white and colour photographs taken in and around New York throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. The images serve as a candid and captivating ode to the city, brimming with colourful characters and unspoken narratives, frozen in time. A stylish, older lady cuts a dash in tinted sunglasses, a hair net and statement earrings; an elderly couple sway to an unheard song; a scantily clad woman in rollers irons against a similarly bare backdrop. Here, in celebration of the exhibition’s opening, we catch up with the proud New Yorker to discover the stories behind some of these vivid and unique works.

Woman, Peter Cooper Village, New York, 1990s [above]
"One day I happened to walk down First Avenue on the East Side, close to Peter Cooper Village, and spotted this older woman, very neatly dressed. I just walked towards her and asked her if I could take her picture."

May Wong ironing, NY, 1972
"I call this image 'Eddie Sun's Friend Ironing'. May was a friend of my friend Eddie, who I went to college with. He introduced me to her because she was looking into making a portfolio, since she wanted to be a model. The image was taken in my apartment – no furniture, but great light. She was inbetween getting ready so I just put her behind this very old, wooden ironing board."

Hassid and Jewish Bodybuilder, Coney Island, NY, 1980
"I was spending a hot Sunday afternoon at Riis Beach when a hassidic man appeared all in black. Everyone else was either in a bathing suit or nude. People became curious and gathered around the man. One nude man came over and said 'Take my picture with him because I am Jewish, too.'"

Dancing at Pool, Granit Hotel, NY, 1985
"I was photographing at a resort where a childhood friend of mine was a part owner. It was located in Kerhonkson in upstate New York. This photograph was taken during the many activities at the hotel."

Lloyd Steir and Dogs at the Big Apple Circus, NY, 1970s
"This is Lloyd and his dogs, his act was at the Big Apple Circus in the early 70s. It was just a one canvas tent on the Lower East Side at that time but since then it has grown into a big circus that travels. I loved it so much that I visited twice in one week, and the second time I asked Lloyd if I could take his photograph."

Angel and Woman at Brighton Beach, 1976
"Angel Perez was a friend of mine in Brooklyn who lived accross the street. We went to Brighton Beach together. When we got there, I just saw the woman sitting on the bench next to us and asked if I could take their photograph together."

Butchers Boy, 1975
"I was visiting the butcher shop in Boston, Massachusetts and was taking some pictures when the butcher invited me to the freezer. His little son followed and struck a pose!"

These Days: Arlene Gottfried is at Hardhitta Gallery, Cologne until October 9.