American artist Arlene Gottfried was a quiet storm of power, beauty and strength. She traversed the streets of her native New York, photographing the heart and soul of the people who have made the city a wholly original place.
Over her 50-year career, Gottfried saw New York through its ups and downs. Hailing from Brooklyn, she moved to the West Village in her early 20s, hitting the nightclubs during the era of Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat, hanging out on New York’s Lower East Side and singing in an African American gospel choir. Whether photographing seminal figures like activist Marsha P. Johnson and poet Miguel Piñero or three generations of women in her Ashkenazi Jewish family, Gottfried had the empathetic eye, imbuing understanding, warmth, and humor into every picture she made.
After a long battle with breast cancer, Gottfried died in August, and in celebration of her life and work, Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York is opening “A Lifetime of Wandering” (Feb. 28 to April 28, 2018). The exhibition features a selection of work made throughout her career, including never-before-seen black and white, color, and Polaroid photographs made on the streets, the beaches and in the parks of her beloved New York.
“Arlene was very open to people and things,” her brother, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, says. “She always had that curiosity and it showed in her photos. She would take pictures of what fascinated her, like New York the way it used to be: a very gritty, dirty New York – scary sometimes. What stood out with her photos, just like her in person, was that she wasn’t looking down on them. There was no sense of judging anyone. She wanted to get to know these people and experience their lives. It was all done with love.”
Life and death were inextricably linked in Arlene Gottfried’s work. She often found the triumph of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Her life in the church began in 1990, when she accompanied a friend to Erasmus Hall, her high school alma mater, for a gospel concert.
“I was at the concert taking photos, and the one of the sopranos had a 2-year-old daughter named Monet,” Arlene Gottfried told me in 2014. “I took photographs of her that night. Then, the little girl was killed: She was hit by her mother’s boyfriend and died one week later.”
She had been photographing a funeral of a Puerto Rican girl in the Bronx when she learned the news.
“I was still wearing a dress when my friend told me what happened to Monet. I went right over to her funeral. Her mother, Monique, remembered that I took her last pictures and asked if I could bring the photos to the choir rehearsal. So I went – and I stayed five years as a singer. Monet’s life really touched mine in a major way,” she said.
Arlene Gottfried’s natural curiosity could unconsciously seduce just about anyone into allowing her a peek into their lives, says her brother.
“My grandmother was similar to Arlene: very open to things,” Gilbert Gottfried remembers. “She had a real interest in what was going on. She lived to 104 and I always say she died young. She was curious ... and I think Arlene got a lot of that from her.”