Real Lives in a Righteous Eye: The Photographs of Arlene Gottfried

by A.M. Rousseau

A man stands stark naked on a beach flexing his biceps in a “muscleman” pose.  He has a slight smile and is twisting just so, the better to display the back and the front in one view.  Next to him stands a man fully clothed. He has a full beard and wears a dark formal overcoat, felt hat, and tie. He carries a bag and has on dark leather shoes. He is wearing the characteristic uniform of an Hassidic Jew.  The beach appears to be in the city. There are tenement brick buildings in the background.  A woman jogs in the distance, and another lies on a blanket. How did these two men come to be standing together? Why is one naked and why is he standing so close to the religious man, who does not appear to think it out of the ordinary that a nude man is posing like this in such close proximity? And what is he doing here anyway, in clothes and shoes that surely must be difficult and hot to walk in on the beach? Both men look calmly at the photographer, as though she has just walked up to them and said, “Excuse me. Do you mind if I take your picture?” and they have stopped in their tracks, one striking a pose, the other gazing without alarm, and said, “Sure.”

Arlene Gottfried is a photographer with an eye and a mind on the city streets - an “insider” with an ability to capture images of life that are raw, real, hard-edged, and caustic and at the same time affectionate, funny, and loving.  She is a photographic collector of secret intimacies, ecstatic moments, and the common occurrences of lives lived close to an abyss and very near joy.  A scavenger  for bright colors, the telling gesture, and the wandering glance in the interactions of people at, and outside the margins, she is the funky, casual observer of life’s everyday happenings.  Deceptively like snapshots, her photographs always speak from the perspective of a best friend, an invited guest, a member of the wedding.  The heat, the energy, the ethnic flavor, the hip-hop style and the fun of a vibrant, “What’s happening, Man?” New York City radiate from her images.

Gottfried lives and works in that huge, poorly marked maze of buildings (I got lost three times trying to find my way) on the east side of Manhattan known as Stuyvesant Town.  Her apartment is decorated with the artifacts, objects, paintings, and photographs of a life full of travel and freelance work in New York and cities in and outside of the United States.  Upon entering the small entrance way, one is immediately struck by the bits of ultramarine blue, thalo green, vermilion, and cadmium - dotted here and there in a hanging dress, a curtain, a mirror frame, a cat toy - that make up the color scheme of her apartment and replicate closely the carnival palette found in her work. These are the trademark Arlene Gottfried colors, bright, primary, and vivid. 

At the entrance, one is also greeted by “Diddle” a fat, furry, beige boy on four legs who rolls his pudgy self in the blaze of yellow sunlight streaming through the windows.  He gazes up a each visitor with adoring, powder-blue eyes and will display his talents at soccerball upon only the slightest request.  Later he gracefully twists his roly-poly self around the leg of a chair in a little acrobatic demonstration of feline abilities. With Diddle thus occupied, AG and I sit down to talk at a small, painted wooden table set in the middle of the room next to a large couch-bed and bookcase.  We haven’t been talking for a minute when AG’s face suddenly lights up and she rushes to get her camera, “Can I take your picture?” she asks. “Of course,” I oblige.  Something about the blue table, my blue sweater, the blue notebook, and my blue striped shirt has caught her eye. Previously unbeknownst to me, I am a vision in blue.

My blueness recorded, AG takes me into the bedroom which has been converted into an office/work space, and pulls back the heavy drapes on one window to reveal a mother dove incubating eggs on an impossibly tiny nest.  The narrow window sill is not really large enough to hold a nest, however small, so the mother is somewhat awkwardly perched half on and half off the track for the window screen.  She looks perilously close to tumbling the six stories below but seems content enough to have her little corner and not at all afraid when we peer in close to see what she is up to.  An equally curious Diddle was ordered to keep his distance and reluctantly obeys.

AG says that the dove has been returning to this perch each year for four years so far. “It’s how I know it’s spring,” she says.  “Sometimes a male dove will join the mother and keep watch while the mother has business elsewhere.” Every year four babies are born, and each year they fly off to find their way in the world. AG is the family photographer for their annual hatchings, feedings, and first flights.

We talk of the difficulties of a photographer’s life, particularly as it relates to the mundane - how to keep track of everything! All photographer require a full-time administrative assistant, and few of us have them.  The cataloging, filing, labeling, organizing, shipping, and storing of slides and prints is a daunting task, one in which I have never met anyone who felt fully up to speed. AG explains that she manages to keep a pretty good handle on it, but just. Her vast collection of thousands of prints and slides is neatly stored floor to ceiling in closets, files, and cabinets in her jam-packed but well organized back bedroom. I am impressed at her ability  to locate quickly an image I request that was made 15 years ago and perhaps not looked at in the last ten.

“I’m what’s known as a ‘Real New Yorker,’” says AG. “My grandparents on my mother’s side are from Russia. They settled in Brooklyn. My grandmother just celebrated her 100th birthday. My mother was born in Brooklyn, and it’s where I grew up and went to Erasmus High School. It’s famous because Barbara Streisand and few other celebrities went there, but not at the same time as when I attended.”

“When I graduated from high school my parents really wanted me to go to college, but I wanted no part of it. School didn’t interest me. I was much more interested in ‘ ,’” says AG, “ but I didn’t  know what I wanted to do.” She took a job as a clerk typist and, to satisfy her parents, enrolled at a community college for night courses. After a year she was still uncertain of her direction and entirely sick of sitting in classrooms passively listening to instructors talk at her.  By chance she noticed an offering in the school catalogue for a course in photography, a subject about which she knew absolutely nothing. “Maybe,” she thought, “this course would be more about actually doing something.” An uncle had recently left the family an old camera.  The course provided an opportunity to find out more about it.

“The class,” she says, “turned out to be designed for commercial 4x5 production and advertising work.  All of the other students were men, mostly older, and many of them were already working in the commercial photography business.” AG found herself totally intimidated.  The classes were not taught in the normal college buildings, but in a huge, dark warehouse under the Manhattan Bridge.  Sitting in the classroom the first night she was overwhelmed by what she thought she had gotten herself into. “I thought I might cry,” says AG, “But I liked the instructor and I wanted to try working the equipment.” Eventually she discovered that she fit in well with this group of students, and many became lifelong friends.  She says, “The course taught me how to use a 4X5 camera and to light and shoot almost anything.”

A strange turning point came for her when one of the other students asked if he could take her portrait. “I said OK, but I was surprised when he asked me to turn around with my back to the camera!”  He wanted to see her long, curly, black hair falling down against the fur of an antique jacket she wore. It was a quick shot, but it set off a question in her mind.

“A few weeks later at a party given by the man who had taken the photograph, I asked if I could see the picture. He hadn’t printed it yet but agreed to show me the negative under the enlarger in his darkroom.”  Standing beside him in the darkness she waited with anticipation while he carefully placed the negative in the enlarger, adjusted the f-stop and turned on the light. “I was shocked,” she says. “It was amazing.” The sharp textures of her long, curly hair contrasted in beautiful waves against the spiky, smooth fur of her jacket.

In negative relief the image was not a picture of her face, yet she knew instinctively that it revealed so much more.  “It opened up a whole new world for me, “ she explains. The idea of taking a photograph that was not merely a record of something, or a document to advertise a product, but was instead a concept, an idea, a personal expression, revealed  a realm of ideas and opportunity that she had not heretofore imagined. Vaguely she saw that it had something to do with that obscure thing called “Art.” Could photography be a way to actually express myself,” she wondered. The very idea seemed radical and foreign. What on earth might she have to express anyway? What could photography show of it?

Encountering these ideas for the first time was like walking into a wide wonderland of experiment and play. Here, definitely, was something she could do. And doing was exactly her idea of good time. For AG it was then an easy step to walk into the world, her immediate world, and begin to comment with her camera upon what she saw.

AG saw everything, and she saw it with a unique vision that captured the spirit, the play, the love, the action, and the energy of those around her. Her milieu was the open streets, and she found that, in the middle of public life, she had an uncanny ability to be present in a situation that was intimate, covert, and exposed all at the same moment. She knew people and they let her in.

She is able to share her subjects’ pleasure and the hidden secrets of their life in a way this is compassionate and revealing. Her pictures give her audience an entree it might not otherwise have into the lives of people it could not otherwise know. In every sense of the word, AG’s pictures are family pictures. They are the family snapshots she shares with her grateful viewers, and it is in that special relationship that her photographs find depth and meaning.

Apart from specific magazine assignments, AG has never been capable of setting out to do anything remotely like and essay about the people she photographs. Rather, she has been taking photographs in the course of living her life and over time, a long time, accumulated vast numbers of images that seem of their own accord to have coalesced around a particular topic. Thus, she found after a period of ten years she had a set of images, called “Bacalitos and Fireworks,” about her involvement with the Puerto Rican Community in Spanish Harlem, the Lower East Side, and her native Brooklyn. (Bacalitos are a kind of fried fish.)

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