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Remembering Arlene Gottfried Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

11 August 2017

The Singing Photographer has left the stage. She was carried off, after a remarkable performance as one of the leading street photographers of her generation, at the young age of 66 by breast cancer.

Arlene Gottfried, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in Coney Island above the hardware store owned by her father Max and his brother Seymour. When she was 9 the family moved to Crown heights where she discovered the vibrant Puerto Rican community she would later immortalize with her camera.

Her interest in photography began in her teens when her father gave her a used camera. She would take photographs around her neighborhood, fearlessly walking up to people to ask if she could take their picture.

Her educational goal was to avoid listening to lectures and doing homework, she said. So she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. After graduation, she worked as a photographer at an ad agency before launching a successful freelance career.

That career included work for the New York Times Magazine, Life, Newsweek, Fortune and the Independent in London.

'If I got some memorable photographs and moments, then I feel very fortunate and I think that's probably why I do it and why the wandering has a meaning.'

But she loved people and people loved her. So her own assignments were her favorites. She returned to the streets to photograph the life she loved. And that passion for street photography led to the publication of five books:

  • The Eternal Light (Dewi Lewis, 1991) is a photo essay on the community of singers Gottfried discovered at an abandoned gas station in New York's Lower East Side. She joined the choir herself, becoming the "singing photographer."
  • Midnight (powerHouse Books, 2003) was the name of a handsome and charming friend Gottfried met in 1984 before he succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia. Gottfried never abandoned him, though, standing by him for over two decades. "The photographs make me sad," she has said, "because I know what a warm, gentle, intelligent soul Midnight is and I also know how he suffered."
  • Sometimes Overwhelming (powerHouse Books, 2008) is an ode to the people of New York City in the 1970s and '80s. From Coney Island's eccentric denizens to a Hasid at Riis Beach's nude bay to the disco nights of sexual abandon and the children in the original Village Halloween parade, it's "a delightfully lighthearted look at the most outrageous people you might ever see."
  • Bacalaitos and Fireworks (powerHouse Books, 2011) is Gottfried's ode to Puerto Rican culture: eccentric bad-boys, white-clad church-goers, an afro-sporting poet in a groovy leisure suit, a gambling grandpa with painted-on eyebrows and a cowboy mustache and even some classic, plastic-covered furniture.
  • Mommie (powerHouse Books, 2016) is a photographic portrait of three generations of women in Gottfried's family, an intimate story of the inevitable passage of time and effects of aging. The three subjects are Gottfried's 100-year-old immigrant grandmother, her fragile mother and her reluctant sister, who pose for her for over 35 years.

The intimacy of something like Mommie, whose very title is private, was echoed even in the more cultural works like Bacalaitos and Fireworks, where she would not only shoot the fleeting action on the street but go into a home to capture what light warmed family life.

And her tribute to Midnight is both at once, telling the story of a soul trapped in a death sentence without ever losing sight of what was beautiful about the man.

Is it any wonder she finally ended up singing solos like Amazing Grace for a choir?

"You are a witness to certain things that are happy, sad and changes in the environment and those are all my experiences," she once said. "If I got some memorable photographs and moments, then I feel very fortunate and I think that's probably why I do it and why the wandering has a meaning."

The Singing Photographer is survived by her sister Karen and her brother Gilbert.

What we wouldn't give for an encore.

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