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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
worked for all the major magazines including Life, Fortune, Time
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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
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.”
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.
in Photo Review, Volume 21, Number 1, Winter 1998, ©A.M. Rousseau
1999 Ms. Gottfried published her first book of the images of Selwyn Rawls and
the Eternal Light Singers.)
Man and Hassid, Riis Beach , Arelene Gottfried ©1980
Gottfried with Diddle, ©A.M.Rousseau, 1998
Dogs, from Bacalaitos & Fireworks, ©Arlene Gottfried
Family, El Barrio, New York, ©Arlene Gottfried, 1978