Lives in a Righteous Eye:
Photographs of Arlene Gottfried
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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