The beginning of this series goes right back to the first years of discovery when she was attending community college.  Outside the strictures and confines of the 4X5 class, why not, she thought, take pictures of the people in her neighborhood?   She lived at the time with her parents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in what she describes as a “mixed ethnic neighborhood.” “You know how it is with any new toy,” she recalls. The new toy happened to be the battered 35mm camera left to her family by her uncle, and it proved perfect for making images of her friends on the streets outside her apartment in her own and other communities.  They were just as glad to stand still for a photograph as were the cones and rectangles of her still-life class, and on the street she found much more to engage her interest. She found, in fact, a number of “situations”: chained Chihuahuas and their master on a park bench; Communion girls walking behind the lead nun past a television running off a car battery; six children gazing from behind a screened, gated window, and on Riis beach, a naked muscle man and a Hassidic Jew.

It was material unlike anything she had learned in class, and she set out to explore it on her own.  “The culture of Puerto Rico, the music, the festivals, the people, the children in the streets have always been in my life, “ she states.  Years later, she became a close friend of Miguel Pinero, author of Short Eyes, and photographed the poets, writers, and artists of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side of New York.

After finishing the course at the community college and now smitten by the idea of learning as much as she could about photography, AG decided to continue her education at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  “I was uncertain of what I would do at FIT. I only barely even knew why I was there, but I wanted to study more.  I didn’t care if it was fashion, still-life, or whatever. In my own work I was really doing photojournalism, but I didn’t have a name for it. FIT didn’t offer photojournalism, and since I didn’t know what that was anyway, I was just as happy to study what was offered.”

AG perfected her skills as a commercial photographer. “I learned a lot about medium- and large-format photography, lighting, and the technical side of things.  The idea promoted at FIT was that after graduation students needed to apprentice themselves as assistants to commercial photographers in order to learn the business.  After a period of time in training, the smarter, more aggressive ones would open their own studios.”

AG attempted to follow that course but found herself roadblocked by the fact that she was a woman and a small one at that.  “They told me I couldn’t carry the equipment.” Also the best work in her portfolio was “personal work,” and while it was often well received, she frequently heard such remarks as, “You probably just got ‘lucky’ shots.”  Nevertheless, she found assistant jobs here and there.  Underemployment gave her the opportunity to continue photographing the world around her, something she did as naturally as combing her hair in the morning.

Economic respite came in the form of a staff job at an ad agency.  She says, “It was low pay, but it had the benefit of access to a great darkroom.  In my off hours, I could print my own work.” As a full-time assistant - a job she thoroughly enjoyed - she quickly became indispensable to the agency.  “For years I worked my butt off, but it was great to have a weekly paycheck, no matter how small,”  All went smoothly until the head photographer she worked under left for another job.  This left a vacancy AG was more than ready to fill, but the agency was reluctant to name a woman to the position. Instead they cast about for a male replacement and , failing to find one, allowed AG to take over the work without comparable pay until the vacancy could be filled.  Several months into the job, AG requested and got a minuscule increase, but the break with the agency came when she decided to take a long-scheduled vacation. A unique opportunity to travel to Cuba had appeared, and she was eager to photograph a certain Spanish festival in her own style.  (By then, she had begun to find some confidence in her personal work and had landed a few assignments.) Suddenly her vacation dates conflicted with a new agency project, and they asked her to cancel her arrangements. “I declined, and they declined to take me back when I got back.”  Apparently the long-sought after man had been found. Thus, AG was provided with an impetus to begin her freelance career. 

She has worked for all the major magazines including Life, Fortune, Time and Newsweek.

“ I didn’t have a prayer if an art director was looking for the usual thing.  There was never anything conventional about my work at all. I had to find people who wanted something different from the ordinary.” Alice George, then at Fortune, proved a great fan for many years. AG says, “The way I’ve done things has never had much of a plan to it, but I’ve been lucky sometimes. The downside to that, of course, is that the paying work is irregular.”

For AG, the pleasures, opportunities, and traumas of living in New York City have provided their own particular set of adventures and amusements.  She remembers, “I found my first apartment on Carmine Street in Little Italy.  It was fifth-floor walk-up that was burglarized three times.”  Still mourning the loss of her early cameras, she then found some security in a large, relatively inexpensive floor-through apartment on 23rd Street and Second Avenue.  It afforded her necessary space for her work and room to build her own darkroom, but like many other New York apartment dwellers during those changing times, she suffered through the constant anxieties of evolving rent laws, building sales, rotating landlords, escalating rents, and eviction notices.  She managed to hang on for 13 years, finding housing stability finally in her current residence in Stuyvesant Town.

Her cozy apartment means freedom from the vagaries of rapacious landlords, but lacks the space and amenity of a darkroom.  Perhaps it was the lack of a darkroom that led her into color work, perhaps not. In any case, she says, “Whenever I am remembering a certain ‘situation,’ what usually sticks in my mind is something striking about a color - a pin, a bright blue, a red dress.  I’m drawn to color.”

AG is a  long-time lover of gospel music. “I heard this one group sing in Harlem, and I was crazy about their music. I approached the leader, Selwyn Rawls, about photographing the, and he gave me his card. He was very friendly and told me to call. In my typical way I stuck the card on my bulletin board and forgot about it.” The card was still there a year later when a friend mentioned an interest in gospel music and a desire to see a certain group.  It was the same group AG had met earlier. Her friend’s interest provided her with an incentive to get back in touch with Rawls. After meeting and talking, he gave her permission to photograph the group, and she began attending rehearsals and performances.  Always a great fan of the music it wasn’t long before she became close friends with Rawls and with many of the groups’ members.

On one occasion when the group was invited to sing at the Spofford Correctional Center, an institution for young offenders, AG was informed that she would not be allowed to photograph.  As was her habit, she went along to watch the concert anyway.  The group’s uniform at that time was a simple black shirt and black skirt or pants, and on that particular evening, AG, who was hanging around backstage with the singers, happened to be wearing a black outfit. She says, “When it came time for the curtain to go up, Rawls turned to me and said, ‘Come sing with us,’ like it was the most natural thing in the world.  I thought it was a joke, but I went anyway. I love it. Then at the next New Year’s Eve service I was waiting with my friend Angie, one of the singers, before the performance. When it was time to sing Angie said, ‘Let’s go!’ and I did.”

That was how Arlene Gottfried became a member of the Harlem gospel choir, “Selwyn Rawls and the Eternal Light Community Singers.”  She photographed and sang with the group for over six years, traveling to South America and other cities in the United States as a photographer and a participant. One of only two white singers in the group, she became good friends with Rawls and found that singing gave great meaning and focus to her life.  Her work with them continued until Rawls death in November 1995, after which time, she says, “As will happen with any group that loses a leader, they went through many changes.”  No longer a member of the choir, she remains close to many of the singers.  She describes her long-lasting involvement: “Music gave my life such a deep and lasting richness! As much as I love the world of photography, it has never given me the same measure of connection and intensity. Selwyn, was a gifted, talented, and powerful man. He was my close friend. We were like family.”  The loss for her is still palpable and present.

Out of the six-year relationship with the choir came a profound and moving series of pictures.  The images she made reveal not only the joy, energy, and enthusiasm of the singers, who made their singing a gift to God, but somehow, miraculously, also take us into the very heart and spiritual life of a loving community led by a charismatic leader doing good work in the world.  Impossibly enough, through AG’s Pictures, we can almost feel the music.  We become vicarious witnesses to the spiritual uplift of the songs, their beauty and revelation a gift to us, minus the sound. 

Without an agent, AG has never had much of a talent or an appetite for the marketing end of photography, and so her work has not received the attention or exposure it deserves.  But around Christmastime one year, certainly an inauspicious time to look for work, AG recalls, “I woke up one morning and for some reason got it in my head that I should call the Daily News.  They asked to see my portfolio and eventually published the work from the gospel series in the Sunday magazine to coincide with Black History month” After that, the work found a wider audience in Europe and has been exhibited nationally and internationally to wide acclaim.  In one case the South East Museum in Florida invited the choir to sing for the opening of her show, and recently at an exhibition in Europe, AG sang solo.

“Two years ago when I called the choir members to let them know that the pictures were being published in the issue of Life magazine, “Celebrating Our Hopes,” I learned about a choir that needed people for a gospel tour to Brazil, and I wound up going with them.  I felt like I was led to go because I knew Selwyn.  We had only a month of rehearsals and went to five cities in just about as many days. I sang full voice. It was exhausting, but wonderful!”

Photography has opened doors and led AG down Paths she might not otherwise have traveled. “Who would ever think that photography would lead me to singing?” she asks. “It’s changed my perspective and allowed me to have an effect on people.  You can really be connected in an intimate way. When I sang at my show at the Musee Arhur Batut in France, people were very moved and related to the work in a different way.  They walked around and were interested and could speak intelligently about it.”

For the present, AG wants to see completion for the Eternal Light Series in the form of a book and is hopeful that it will find a publisher.  She would also like to find the time to print more work from her Latino Series.  “Some of my most powerful work is sitting in my files.  There is more color work that I want to complete, but I don’t have the finances or venue for putting it out there yet.  I have to be positive, and it will happen.  Most things that happen to me are not things that I plan, so I don’t really know what the future holds, but I know just being myself and doing the work is the best way to go.”

It was the kind of swelteingr day in the city when you are glad for the slightest breeze and there isn’t any.  Anybody who could, went to the beach.  In those days, there was a nude section at Riis Beach.  Nobody made a big deal about it.  In front of me, like a vision in a mirage, was a man wearing a heavy wool coat, hat, shoes, and long pants.  A Hassid.  He had come to gawk at the naked people, but everyone was staring at him! One nude guy was talking to him. ‘I’m Jewish, too,’ he was saying.  I had my camera. ‘Hey, take my picture!’ he shouted to me.  And I did.

Published in Photo Review, Volume 21, Number 1, Winter 1998, ©A.M. Rousseau

(In 1999 Ms. Gottfried published her first book of the images of Selwyn Rawls and the Eternal Light Singers.) 


Muscle Man and Hassid, Riis Beach , Arelene Gottfried ©1980

Arlene Gottfried with Diddle, ©A.M.Rousseau, 1998

Chained Dogs, from Bacalaitos & Fireworks, ©Arlene Gottfried

Rivera Family, El Barrio, New York, ©Arlene Gottfried, 1978