When Eccentricity Reigned: Portraits From a Vanishing New York

3 minute read

For photographer Arlene Gottfried, the New York she grew up in is rapidly disappearing. “Most of it is gone,” she says, citing sky-high (and still rising) rents pushing out “the most colorful, different and unique” people she used to photograph in the 1970s and ’80s.

Born in Brooklyn, Gottfried has always been drawn to the diverse communities she knew when growing up. Her photographs are deeply personal portraits of New Yorkers who seemed to operate within a different set of rules and assumptions, from nude bodybuilders posing next to a Hassidic Jew at Jacob Riis Beach to elderly women jumping rope.

“These photos came about just from interest in places and people,” says Gottfried, who would wander New York, from Coney Island to Crown Heights, Brighton Beach and Harlem, photographing the characters who caught her eye. “I don’t know why [I photographed them], except maybe because I was drawn to them. They stood out.”

Until 2008, most of these pictures sat in boxes. “I never much thought about a book at all,” she says. “And then I met designer Maria Mayer Feng. She loved the black-and-white images and she wanted to do a book from these.” PowerHouse published Something Overwhelming in 2008. “People really liked the book–the humor, the strangeness.”

Now, Gottfried’s idiosyncratic portraits are on show at the Daniel Cooley Fine Art gallery in New York, proving, once more, that her view of the city and its (vanishing) eccentrics continues to fascinate people both in and outside of New York.

“Today, you can still see some interesting people when you go to the beach in Coney Island or Brighton Beach, and some places of Brooklyn haven’t been changed yet,” but time is running out, she says, as gentrification is spreading to new neighborhoods across Brooklyn and, now, even Queens. “We’re losing these regular, individualistic, working-class people.”

Arlene Gottfried is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. 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. Gottfried is the author of Midnight (powerHouse Books, 2003), The Eternal Light (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1999), Sometimes Overwhelming (powerHouse 2008) and Bacalaitos and Fireworks.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

Angel and Woman on Boardwalk, Brighton Beach, 1976
Angel and Woman on Boardwalk, Brighton Beach, 1976Arlene Gottfried
Hassid and Jewish Bodybuilder, 1980
Hassid and Jewish Bodybuilder, 1980 Arlene Gottfried
Riis Nude Bay, Queens, 1980
Riis Nude Bay, Queens, 1980Arlene Gottfried
Third Avenue Shopping, El Barrio, 1978
Third Avenue Shopping, El Barrio, 1978Arlene Gottfried
Pituka at Bethesda Fountain, 1977
Pituka at Bethesda Fountain, 1977Arlene Gottfried
Guy with Radio, East 7th Street, 1977
Guy with Radio, East 7th Street, 1977Arlene Gottfried
Wolverine Camper, 1979
Wolverine Camper, 1979Arlene Gottfried
Veterans Day Parade, 1978
Veterans Day Parade, 1978Arlene Gottfried
Doorway in SoHo, 1980
Doorway in SoHo, 1980Arlene Gottfried
Johnny Cintron, Lower East Side, 1980
Johnny Cintron, Lower East Side, 1980Arlene Gottfried
Little Fonzi, 1980
Little Fonzi, 1980Arlene Gottfried
No Wheels, El Barrio, 1978
No Wheels, El Barrio, 1978Arlene Gottfried
Isabel Croft Jumping Rope, Brooklyn, 1972
Isabel Croft Jumping Rope, Brooklyn, 1972Arlene Gottfried
Doorway in Brooklyn, 1980
Doorway in Brooklyn, 1980Arlene Gottfried

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