The drugs were rampant, abandoned buildings were everywhere, it was hard to get jobs, and I was capturing an immigrant society who was trying to cope and survive in a new location that was often unwelcoming and sometimes hostile.
Professional photographer, Arlene Gottfried, began taking photographs in her hometown of Brooklyn and New York City in the 1970’s after her father gave her a 35 mm camera. Arlene took to the streets, snapping both intimate and humorous shots of people and her surroundings. From strangers, to her own family, to the Puerto Rican immigrants who had recently moved to her neighborhood, Arlene captured the essence of New York City and its inhabitants way before camera phones and social media were part of public consciousness. Ms. Gottfried’s extensive catalog of street photographs is a historical tribute to bygone eras of pre-gentrified New York City.
You are a born and bred New Yorker who, for the last four decades, has taken street photographs of the streets and people of New York City. What compelled you, back in the 1970’s, to start photographing different areas of the city and its residents?
Well, it was just a natural progression for me. I got a camera in my hand and had no direction necessarily. I just went out to places I liked and took my camera with me. There was no lack of interesting places and people in New York. Usually, everyone was okay with me taking their pictures. I loved documenting what I came across.
In your series, “Bacalaitos and Fireworks”, it is obvious that you were drawn to, and were embraced by, the Puerto Rican community in New York City. What attracted you to this culture and how did you become so close to that community?
They were the immigrants at that time, now immigration has become much broader. It started in Brooklyn where I was growing up. At that time Brooklyn became a white flight area. The original tenants in my neighborhood were moving out. Every day I would see moving trucks on the blocks when I was walking to school. The original white residents were replaced by the Puerto Rican population, who moved in and began living in the neighborhood. I was still living at home at that time. My family stayed even after all our neighbors moved and the new Puerto Rican residents outnumbered the white residents. It was a time of change and that neighborhood did begin to deteriorate then… But that was in the 1970’s and it was pretty bad anyway all over New York.
Many areas of New York City were hit hard by the recession in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Certainly the Lower East Side, known also as “Loisaida”, was riddled with poverty, drug use, crime and deteriorating buildings during these decades. Yet even with such a gritty urban backdrop, your photographs capture people living and celebrating life despite everyday struggles. When you were initially taking your photographs, did you realize you were capturing such a distinct juxtaposition of the beauty and hope of humanity against an often harsh and ugly cityscape?
I don’t know if I was that aware of the juxtaposition I was capturing at the time. I was still a new photographer starting out. I was certainly aware of what was happening to that particular urban situation and other areas all over New York in the 1970’s. The drugs were rampant, abandoned buildings were everywhere, it was hard to get jobs, and I was capturing an immigrant society who was trying to cope and survive in a new location that was often unwelcoming and sometimes hostile. This was a misunderstood and not always welcomed immigrant population at the time.
Your photograph, “Miguel Pinero, Avenue D” captured the award winning and Tony nominated poet, playwright, and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. You also photographed Jorge Brandon, known as the “Father of Nuyorican Poetry”. What are the stories behind these photos? Did you know these two literary groundbreakers well? Did you spend a lot of time at the Nuyurican Poets Café in the 1970’s and 1980’s? If so, what was the atmosphere and energy there like at the time?
I did spend a lot of time, mostly in the 1980’s at the Nuyorican Poets Café. It closed for a time and then moved from 6th Street to 3rd Street between Avenues B and C. It was a good time hanging out over there, with all of the break-dancing and the music. Miky (Miguel Pinero) was a friend of mine. Even with all of the decay in the city, it was vibrant at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Great things were taking place within the café’s walls and the creative energy, from kids in the streets to well known poets, was palpable there. Jorge Brandon was a big deal in the Nuyorican Poetry movement. I knew him and he was at the café quite a bit. It was difficult for these poets and creatives, who were not completely being accepted in America… But their hope and the fact that they were accepted into the Lower East Side made that movement and that neighborhood what it was. “A Lower East Side Poem” is one of Pinero’s works that I published in my book for the series. He talks about having his ashes spread there. His poem talks about the Lower East Side and how close he felt to it. Now, a lot of new people are coming to America than ever before, but at the time, it was very difficult here for Puertorican immigrants.
I have included Miky Pinero’s “A Lower East Side Poem” below:
Just once before I die
I want to climb up on a
to dream my lungs out till
then scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.
So let me sing my song tonight
let me feel out of sight
and let all eyes be dry
when they scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.
From Houston to 14th Street
from Second Avenue to the mighty D
here the hustlers & suckers meet
the ****s & freaks will all get
on the ashes that have been scattered
thru the Lower East Side….
…There’s no other place for me to be
there’s no other place that I can see
there’s no other town around that
brings you up or keeps you down
no food little heat sweeps by
fancy cars & pimps’ bars & juke saloons
& greasy spoons make my spirits fly
with my ashes scattered thru the
Lower East Side . . .
A thief, a junkie I’ve been
committed every known sin
Jews and Gentiles . . . Bums & Men
of style . . . run away child
police shooting wild . . .
mother’s futile wails . . . pushers
making sales . . . dope wheelers
& cocaine dealers . . . smoking pot…
…streets are hot & feed off those who bleed to death . . .
all that’s true
all that’s true
all that is true
but this ain’t no lie
when I ask that my ashes be scattered thru
the Lower East Side.
So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefeller’s ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong
you can’t be shy less without request
someone will scatter your ashes thru
the Lower East Side….
…I don’t wanna be buried in Puerto Rico
I don’t wanna rest in Long Island Cemetery
I wanna be near the stabbing shooting
gambling fighting & unnatural dying
& new birth crying
so please when I die . . .
don’t take me far away
keep me near by
take my ashes and scatter them thru out
the Lower East Side . . .
In your photo, “Puerto Rican Day”, you capture a Caucasian couple dressed in business suits eyeing two Puerto Rican men, tattooed, one shirtless, sharing a joint on Fifth Avenue during the Puerto Rican Day Parade. A moment that, in my opinion, not only visually captures the many different types of people and backgrounds who live together in New York, but also encompasses the term “gentrification”. As someone who has seen and photographed the city and its boroughs throughout the decades, what is your opinion on the change and gentrification that has occurred in recent years? Are you for or against gentrification?
I believe I took this photograph in the early 80’s, perhaps 1983. The couple actually came across the street to investigate what was happening. This was a time before the Puerto Rican Day Parade was crowded. I couldn’t even have backed up enough to take that picture now. I gave that couple credit for being brave and checking the men out.
Gentrification really happened later in New York, starting in the 1990’s. Gentrification is still going on at an intense rate, the way rents are going up, small businesses moving out of neighborhoods, and people moving to more affordable places; these are the businesses and people that make a neighborhood what it is. When they leave, residents lose certain conveniences and the neighborhood feel is lost. Many areas have changed due to gentrification. Brooklyn has really changed a lot. I appreciate that gentrification can help areas, but I miss the old flavor of New York and am sad to see so many longtime residents and businesses pushed out.
In all of your photographs, no matter what the series, you capture the intimate, strange, funny and heartbreaking moments of strangers; lovers, an addict preparing his fix, a nude bodybuilder standing next to a Hasidic man on the beach at Jacob Riis Beach, a two-year-old girl’s funeral, the list goes on… How are you able to gain your subjects trust to such an extent that they allowed you to take such personal photographs? Particularly because you were shooting pictures when photography was not an every day event as it is now with the proliferation of camera phones.
The bodybuilder and the Hasidic man on the beach was a fortuitous shot. For a short time, there was a nude beach area, Bay B at Jacob Riis Park. It didn’t last very long because the residents didn’t like everyone getting naked. At the time, I was taking a photograph of the Hassidic man walking on the beach when the nude bodybuilder walked over to us and said, “I’m Jewish too” and asked if I would take their photograph together. It certainly is a different time now, when it comes to photography. I don’t even know how to answer how I got the shots I got. I guess it is part of who I am and what I was doing. I was always pretty honest with my subjects. They knew I was there and what I was doing and they were okay with that. I grew up in Coney Island and then moved to Crown Heights. There was always a diverse population where I lived and I was very comfortable with that. That was who was around, I knew a lot of these people and I trusted them and vice versa. I had a keen sense of street life and I knew it was okay and I felt safe and I expected to see different people.
Do you have a preference for shooting in film vs. digital or black and white vs. color? What type of camera(s) and lens (es) do you shoot with?
I’m not too fond of digital. I haven’t kept up with the digital age. I shoot on film, usually with a Nikon or a Yashica, mostly small point and shoot cameras. When I am on assignment I change lenses often, but when I am working for myself I am pretty standard with lenses and usually use a 35 or a 28.
Sometimes I look at a black and white image and think there’s nothing like it and then certain images work well in color. For me, it’s not so much whether I prefer black and white or color images, it’s not having a preference as much as looking at the image after I take it, seeing how it turns out, and what I think works best.
Your most recent book, Mommie, was just published this year. Can you explain this series of photographs and is this your most personal body of work?
My latest book, called Mommie, is about my mother and my grandmother. Generally I took photos of my family like I would of anyone. I would take a picture and move on. But as my mom and grandma grew older and more ill, I photographed them more and more. I know I did this as a way to try to hold on to them, which obviously I couldn’t do, but I tried to hold on to them. I captured what was happening to them in front of me. All I could do was photograph them, other than that I felt helpless in being able to keep them with me. My mother passed in 2002 and my grandmother passed in 2000. That was a very difficult two years for me and my family. We were a very close family. Then my sister had a baby and carried the tradition of family on, and that helped us with dealing with the pain of loss. This series is definitely the most personal of all of my work.
You have had an illustrious professional career as a photojournalist and an editor. Your images have graced numerous covers of publications such as Life, Fortune, Newsweek, Time, The Independent, The Observer, and The Village Voice. Yet you also continued to follow your passion of street photography, which interestingly, has only gained notoriety in recent years. How does it feel to have such a personal body of work recognized after so many years of cultivation? What would you say to people about following their passion projects?
Well, for me it took a really long time for my street photography to be noticed. All of a sudden people were writing about me for blogs and magazine stories about my work were being written. It’s very strange, maybe strange is not quite the right word, but it’s odd when all of a sudden you are being pursued. My advice to people about their passion projects is if you can, hang in there long enough. A passion project is something you can’t help doing. You don’t do it for publicity or notoriety. When I started doing my street photography, it was just something that I did because I enjoyed it. I wasn’t thinking about blogs. There were no blogs.
All images courtesy of: Daniel Cooney Fine Art NYC
Arlene Gottfried, born in Brooklyn, graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and worked as a photographer at an ad agency before freelancing for top publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Life, and The Independent in London. Gottfried has exhibited at the Leica Gallery in New York and in Tokyo, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., among others. Her photographs can be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Berenice Abbott International Competition of Women’s Documentary Photography. Gottfried is the author of Mommie (powerHouse Books, 2016), Bacalaitos & Fireworks (PowerHouse Books, 2011), Sometimes Overwhelming (PowerHouse Books, 2008), Midnight (PowerHouse Books, 2003) and The Eternal Light (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1999). A lecturer and a teacher, Gottfried lives and works in New York City.