Gottfried made sensitive portraits of people in the clubs, back alleys, and drug dens of the city’s Lower East Side
When Arlene Gottfried passed in 2017, the world took note as The New York Times ran one of her photographs on the front page of the Saturday edition and a full-page obituary inside. After a lifetime of picture making, it was a fitting tribute to the artist who had gone largely unheralded in her own lifetime.
But Gottfired did not travail in obscurity. The author of five monographs, Gottfried’s spent her sunset years basking in the critical glow of two well-received exhibitions, Sometimes Overwhelming (2014) and Bacalaitos and Fireworks (2016), thanks to the work of New York gallerist Daniel Cooney.
On September 13, Cooney will present Arlene Gottfried: After Dark, a selection of black and white photographs made on the streets, in the nightclubs, dive bars, back alleys, and drug dens of New York in the 1980s. Gottfried’s portraits reveal a profound sense of beauty made with exquisite sensitivity and care to the impact of poverty, addiction, and crime on people plagued by the effects of systemic oppression, generation after generation.
During her 66 years on earth, the native New Yorker amassed a singular archive of New York City history, documenting the lives of extraordinary individuals living on the edge of what are now-vanishing communities of her hometown. Hailing from Brooklyn, Gottfried moved to Greenwich Village in 1972 as a college student while her family decamped for the East Village, which people didn’t dare to set foot in Alphabet City.
But fear did not cloud Gottfried’s heart. She was wide open, exquisitely tender, and loved to laugh. “Arlene was present to reality and if that reality was pain, drug use, homelessness, someone getting the spirit, she was attuned to that,” says journalist Steven Thrasher, who first met Gottfried as a member of the Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village in the late 1990s.
Gottfried fit into the community at the church, which embraced people of all faiths – or no faith at all. “The church, which had almost died in the mid-80s, had been revived by becoming a place for people who were dying of Aids and later living with HIV. They rebuilt the church. We said about ourselves lovingly at the time it was an ‘island for misfit toys’,” Thrasher says.
“I remember first noticing Arlene as a soloist. She was this little Jewish lady who was sounding like Mahalia Jackson. When she would sing, it from a place of soulfulness that it didn’t feel like a performance. She was not embarrassed as some people are, to go with the feelings of ecstasy and being overcome when the spirit moved her.”
Gottfried’s business cards proudly proclaimed “The Singing Photographer” in recognition that she could very well be anything she wanted. “Arlene didn’t fit into society into a lot of ways people are expected to: she wasn’t married; she didn’t have kids; she had an unusual career that for much of her life was not financially lucrative,” Thrasher says.
Gottfried’s sister, Karen Gottfried, concurs: “Arlene’s life was not an easy one. Sorting through her file of rejection letters and then her smaller file of acceptance letters gives one an insight into the difficulties of the life of a photographer and particularly then a woman in a largely male profession.”
But despite her struggles, Gottfried never ever quit or sold out. She stayed true to the world in which she was raised and flourished: a tight-knit family whose matrilineal line she documented in her fifth and final book, Mommie: Three Generations of Women (powerHouse Books, 2015).
Her brother, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, recognised her star power and prominently featured Arlene in Gilbert, the 2017 film about his life. It was a beautiful tribute to his sister, who had by then been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing treatment. In the film, she dons a turban, indicating a touch of the glamour that underscored her humble yet magical life.
Karen Gottfried notes that for that Arlene was reticent to capitalise on his success for herself: “Although Gilbert had gained fame and celebrity status, Arlene hesitated to use his picture and often avoided showing him in family photos. Fiercely independent, she followed her passion.”
That passion led Gottfried to some of the city’s more intriguing outposts, nightclubs like Studio 54, GG’s Barnum, Le Clique, and Paradise. She was just as at home backstage with bubble dancers as she was at the famed Empire Roller Disco in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she spent her teen years.
The Gottfrieds were one of the few families that remained in the neighbourhood during “white flight”, the mass exodus of white residents spurned on by the Nixon White House’s policy of “benign neglect”, which systematically denied basic government services to black and Latinx communities nationwide. Raised among cultures outside her own, Gottfried recognised within these worlds a vitality that pulsated with life.
“It’s hard to have the insider/outsider conversation with Arlene. She makes work like Mommie, which is so inside her life, and then she will make work like Bacalaitos and Fireworks, where she is drawn to music, art, and everything she loves,” says Paul Moakley, TIME Magazine editor at large and caretaker of the Alice Austen House in Staten Island, which honoured Gottfried with the 2008 exhibition Bitter Sweet and the 2016 Award for the Advancement of Photography.
“Arlene was the perfect person to connect with Alice Austen’s legacy as a woman who went out into the street, made pictures, encountered strangers, and tried to tell stories. It’s a testament to how much more beautiful your life can be when you enter into other worlds and build real, meaningful relationships there. But you have to be careful about how you represent anyone when they trust you to tell their stories,” Moakley says.
“That’s what we are reckoning with right now. You have to think about your power and privilege, how this trickles down to the subjects, how it affects their lives, and how you work with someone authentically to tell their story. Arlene is a blueprint for a lot of those conversations.”
Gottfried’s photographs selected in After Dark reveal a woman who was drawn to the pulsating rhythms of New York’s aching heart when the city had reached some of its darkest days at the turn of the 1980s. The city had narrowly escaped the harrowing impact of near bankruptcy and was barreling towards an even more tragic fate: the twin plagues of crack and Aids. The city had become a hollowed-out shell of its former self, anyone could afford to live here – and only the strongest survived.
In a town filled with characters, Gottfried found those who gathered on the fringe, who were unapologetically themselves long before such a phrase existed. “Arlene was photographing in the funky, gritty, streets of New York,” remembers Karen Gottfried. “Camera in hand, Arlene often darted off when we were walking. She was taking photos of people she had never met. I sometimes wondered if she was making movie stars out of people who generally went unnoticed. But Arlene did notice and she captured the moment.”
The best photographers live in the moment, able to discern the very fraction of a second when truth reveals itself. Though she was a private person, she also understood that intimacy is built upon mutual vulnerability. Gottfried took care to foster authentic connections with her subjects who shared of themselves in intense, heartfelt encounters preserved in silver gelatin.
Thrasher recalls an experience collaborating with Gottfried and co-writer Araceli Cruz on a feature for The Village Voice, in which they travelled to the Bronx to interview a Mexican woman living in a building run by a slumlord. “This woman had helped organise tenants in a rent strike but she was also undocumented. The landlord eventually physically assaulted her and there was a restraining order keeping him out of his own building,” Thrasher recalls.
“She was trying to get the word out about how bad it was to force the city to make changes. We were in a horrible building in the Bronx, this tiny apartment, and Arlene was just as at home and was able to help these people feel comfortable to show this terrible place they lived. They trusted Arlene to take photos of it.”
Gottfried was finely attuned to the world in which she lived, unassuming yet extremely powerful. “Arlene cared about her subjects and how they were presented. That integrity saves the work. No matter how hard the subject is, whether it’s her mother’s death or somebody who is struggling, literally lying in the streets, she will look at people’s faces to connect with them and feel something for them. She wanted you to pause on that and feel that a little,” Moakley says.
“We would end up on random little adventures and we went to the Apollo Theater one day. We were waiting to go on a tour and out of her little bag, she pulled out a point and shoot camera. She was always watching the light, ready to take a picture, prepared at all times. When you are that keyed in to your passion, you have to be ready.
Arlene Gottfried: After Dark is on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York through October 26, 2019