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. –Miguel Pinero
From A Lower East Side Poem, 1980.
Over the past four decades, documentary photographer Arlene Gottfried captured the vibrant Puerto Rican community that moved into the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, a place where she remembers having her first Salsa lesson with a new neighbor. The experience not only sparked her love of Latin music and culture but drew her closer to photographing the communities of the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem. Bacalaitos and Fireworks (powerHouse Books, 2011) is her record of the poetry on the streets, a documentary of a community enduring hard times and a record of some of her most meaningful relationships.
As a child she recalls seeing the Puerto Rican community grow exponentially. She says, “I remember going out of my house for Junior High and every morning it seemed like their was a moving truck on the block and I would walk out in the morning and think ‘where is everybody going?’ Without exaggeration, it was like everyday there was a moving truck. It was when they coined that phrase a ‘white flight.’ Eventually my family moved and I moved out on my own, but before that, it became very rough, dangerous and drug infested.”
Gottfried is well known for photographing her life in Manhattan since college in the 1970’s. Her signature is capturing deeply personal and public moments that build upon an endless diary of the city that’s slowly disappearing with time and gentrification. In all her books you’ll find the neglected parts of the city, maybe a little grittier, but filled with colorful people, families and distinct ethnic neighborhoods. When she was starting out she recalls, “My mother used to say ‘Arlene– just don’t wander!’ Then I started wandering, but I got a camera because it gave it a little more meaning…a life of wandering is really what it all is.”
When asked if she ever thinks about her subject matter, Gottfried says, “I think I wander around and I see things that just speak to me, in one way or another. There are things that you try to say something about or a moment you want to hold.” When asked about how her subjects react to her, she says, “People always say, ‘you have one of those faces where you can go anywhere.’ People always come up to me and speak spanish. If your environment is supposed to play a key role in your development then I guess I’m influenced by many cultures. I feel at home in a lot of different places.”
So much of her time was spent with the poets and musicians on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Looking at her relationship with the poet and actor Miguel Piñero, she says, “I used to feel that it was really bohemian, like the beat generation in the 50’s… there were no rules of any kind.” She also remembers hard times for the community of artists, like the tragic death of musician Richie Cruz from AIDS, where she photographed Miguel Algarín, one of the founders of the famous Nuyorican Poets Café. She attended the funeral with Piñero — Algarín delivered the eulogy. “I felt really feel honored to have been there. There was so much sadness and loss. I think it was a very hard existence, and I was there, so I experienced a lot of that with them.”
Her impressive memory conjures the slightest details about taking a photograph of the skyline from the Lower East Side. “We were on the roof of the Lillian Wald Projects on Avenue D and I had been taking photos of Miguel Piñero. It was a cold December day and we opened the roof door and looked out. I just maybe took the one picture and now its so amazing how in the shadows you can see the World Trade Center.” Besides the beauty of the image, captured on rich Kodachrome 64 film, you have a valuable record of the empty lots and dirty sidewalks before the area’s current renaissance. “It was so rough when I think about it. They used to write about it in the newspaper and call it the “open air drug market.” Addicts would go in the abandoned buildings to shoot up and nobody cared about it.”
Besides photographing the community in New York, she traveled to Puerto Rico numerous times. On one early trip she photographed two older men before a cockfight. She speaks about the photo: “That’s from a place in Puerto Rico called ‘La Canta Gallo’ (the singing rooster) — it was for cock fighting and they would serve the best fried chicken. I guess where you’re eating the loser. I’d probably not be able to stand that now.”
Bacalaitos and Fireworks is Gottfried’s fourth book. The title comes from a time almost 30 years ago when she heard a street vendor selling the fried cod fish (bacalaitos) and fireworks on the 4th of July. She says “the juxtaposition became etched in her mind and representative as part of the culture.” The book dummy was actually completed over 21 years ago by a friend while working at an ad agency. “I think somewhere I always thought of doing a book in my very naive approach to photography. I didn’t really study a lot of photographers and I didn’t know much of anything [about] getting a book out there —part of me is still very much that way. I’m good at taking the pictures and putting them in some order. For me it’s a way of concluding something.”
When asked about the cover of the book, a photograph of revelers at the parade, she says it was found with the help of her editor Craig Cohen, who spent time going through her enormous archive. “Its actually one of the few pictures I don’t remember taking, but it’s like they are all looking at me and were screaming all together—Viva Puerto Rico!”
“It was such a big part of my life and a lot years went into it. You are a witness to certain things that are happy, sad and changes in the environment and those are all my experiences. 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.”
Arlene Gottfried has exhibited at the Leica Gallery in New York and in Tokyo, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., among others. Gottfried’s 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. Her editorial clients include, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, New York Magazine, and The Independent of London. Gottfried is the author of Midnight (powerHouse Books, 2003) and The Eternal Light (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1999) and Sometimes Overwhelming (powerHouse 2008). Bacalaitos and Fireworks is her fourth book and available now.
Gottfried is also a gospel singer. Her music is available here.