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Arlene Gottfried, First Communion, early 1980’s

Arlene Gottfried, 1950 – 2017

An extraordinary photographer of life on the streets of New York, Arlene Gottfried captured the eccentric and marginal with compassion, humour, and affection.

My mother used to say ‘Arlene– just don’t wander!’ 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.

Arlene in conversation with Paul Moakley of TIME in 2011

Arlene attributed her interest in taking intimate photographs of strangers to her upbringing on Coney Island, where there was “always an exposure to all kinds of people, so I never had trouble walking up to people and asking them to take their picture.”

One of her most famous images is of a fully dressed Orthodox Jew and a naked bodybuilder together on the beach at Coney Island which was included in her second book, Sometimes Overwhelming, published in 2008.

In the late 1950s, the Gottfried family moved to Crown Heights, a Puerto Rican area, where they lived below a family of dancers on the Ed Sullivan Show. Through photography, Arlene observed the communities around her; her book Bacalaitos & Fireworks, published in 2011, is a record of Puerto Rican life.

Arlene’s interest in photography was sparked as a teenager when her father gave her a 35mm camera that she took to the Woodstock Festival. She went on to study photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology, then worked at an ad agency and as a freelance photographer and teacher. Her unique ability to capture the marginal and eccentric residents of New York resulted in cover photographs for Time Magazine, The Village Voice and LIFE.

The Tang museum has photos (not yet online) in their collection from the 1970s and 80s including one of Diana Ross taken in 1981.

Arlene also documented her close friend Midnight and his struggle with mental health issues, which resulted in a tender book, ‘Midnight’ (2003) as well as an exhibition.

‘The photographs make me sad because I know what a warm, gentle intelligent soul Midnight is, and also how he suffered’.
Arlene Gottfried

Later in her career, she captured three generations of the women in her family – grandmother, mother, and sister – which formed another publication, ‘Mommie’. Some if these photos are held in The Jewish Museum of New York’s collection

Arlene’s first book of photographs, The Eternal Light (1999) was a result of spending months following and photographing the Eternal Light Community Gospel singers of Harlem. Arlene later became the ‘Singing Photographer’ when she joined the gospel church choir as a soloist. The Brooklyn Museum has one photograph from this collection.

by Katy Ferguson

Photo Credit

  • Arlene Gottfried, First Communion, early 1980’s, Cibachrome print, 11 × 14 in. (27.9 × 35.6 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of Allen G. Thomas Jr. in honor of Daniel Cooney