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.