Photographer captured lives of ordinary people

Isabel Croft Jumping Rope, taken by Arlene Gottfried in Brooklyn in 1972.
Isabel Croft Jumping Rope, taken by Arlene Gottfried in Brooklyn in 1972.PHOTO: ARLENE GOTTFRIED

NEW YORK •Arlene Gottfried, whose arresting images of ordinary people in New York's humbler neighbourhoods earned her belated recognition as one of the finest street photographers of her generation, died last Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 66.

Her brother, comedian and actor Gilbert Gottfried, said the cause was complications of breast cancer.

Arlene Gottfried roamed the streets of New York, camera in hand, finding opportunity at every corner. Much of her work recorded the daily routines and local characters in the city's Puerto Rican areas, where cultural exuberance coexisted with poverty and urban blight.

In one of her most celebrated images, a nun leads a group of Roman Catholic schoolgirls in Communion dresses down a trash- strewn street lined with old cars, one of them with a plugged-in television set on the hood tuned to a western.

She photographed a gospel choir in Harlem; followed a club dancer and former convict known as Midnight as he declined into mental illness, a journey recorded in her book Midnight (2003); and turned her lens on her own family in her mother's final years for the photo essay Mommie, published last year.

She struck pay dirt on a nude beach in Jacob Riis Park in 1980, when a Hasidic Jew, dressed in black hat and overcoat on a scorching summer day, unexpectedly appeared. A nude bodybuilder approached and asked her to take a picture of the two together "because", he said, "I'm Jewish." She obliged. The unforgettable photo shows a flexing nude, smiling proudly, next to his thoroughly nonplussed and emphatically clothed companion.

Her subjects were never specimens held up for cold examination. She was part-documentarian, part- social worker, a warm and, sometimes, lingering presence in the lives she recorded.

She spent 20 years with Midnight and ended up joining the gospel choir that was the subject of her first book, The Eternal Light (1999).

"How her eye captures people and how she touches them, that's hard to explain," her brother told The Guardian in 2014. "Someone else couldn't see the funny or odd or touching thing and capture it. Kind of like how a singer can have a great song, but not know how to sing it. She's able to do that." Gottfried is featured in a documentary film about her brother, Gilbert, scheduled to open in November.

Arlene Harriet Gottfried was born on Aug 26, 1950, in Brooklyn. She spent her early childhood in Coney Island, living above the hardware store that her father, Max, ran with his brother, Seymour. Her mother, the former Lillian Zimmerman, was a housewife.

When Arlene was nine, the family moved to Crown Heights, whose growing Puerto Rican population captured her imagination. In later years, she took the cry of a Puerto Rican street vendor, selling cod fritters and fireworks on the Fourth of July, as the title of her book Bacalaitos & Fireworks (2011), an unvarnished but loving look at Puerto Rican life on the Lower East Side and in Spanish Harlem.

"It was a mixture of excitement, devastation and drug use," she told The New York Times last year, describing the scenes she recorded. "But there was more than just that. It was the people, the humanity of the situation. You had very good people there trying to make it."

When she was in her teens, her father gave her an old camera and she began taking pictures as she walked around the neighbourhood, a habit that became a career.

"We lived in Coney Island and that 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," she told The Guardian.

She took photography courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan because, she once explained, she did not want to listen to lectures or do homework. After leaving the school, she found work doing commercial photography at an advertising agency.

She told Time magazine in 2011: "I wander around and I see things that just speak to me... There are things that you try to say something about or a moment you want to hold."

In addition to her brother, she is survived by a sister, Karen Gottfried.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Photographer captured lives of ordinary people'. Print Edition | Subscribe