Arlene Gottfried, A Lifetime of Wandering @Daniel Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 48 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back room. The show includes:

  • 27 gelatin silver prints (mostly vintage), c1968, 1972, 1976, late 1970s, 1977, 1978, c1979, c1980, 1981, early 1980s, mid 1980s, 1987, 7×10, 14×11 inches (or reverse)
  • 15 vintage cibachrome prints, 1972, 1974, c1970s, late 1970s, c1980s, early 1980s, 1985, 1990, 14×11, 20×16 inches (or reverse)
  • 6 Polaroids, c1980s, 3×3 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: New York city street photography is such a large genre of work that it can be subdivided into many narrower slices and categories. For many, the momentary juxtaposition of the unlikely is the dominant type, where inspired on-the-go framing by the photographer creates layers and combinations that pass by in an instant, merging disconnected pedestrians, storefronts, and sidewalks into ephemeral (and often ironic) compositions. For others, the densely built environment of the city is itself the subject, from the geometric lines of skyscrapers and grand architecture to the grittier textures of alleys and concrete paving.

A third subset of street photography can be found in a more people-centric approach to urban picture making, where images of strangers transition into true street portraiture, and as seen in this survey-style show, Arlene Gottfried was a consistently successful street humanist. Back in the late 1970s, when most of the work on view here was taken, New York city was a dank and often dangerous place, so being a young woman taking pictures in its streets certainly came with plenty of real hazards. But as evidenced by the cross section of urban life so brashly captured in her pictures, she seems to been quite fearless, moving in and out of the city’s sketchier neighborhoods and sweatier nighttime spots with surprising confidence.

Gottfried died last year, and this selection of pictures feels like a deep dive into her archive, passing by many of the more recognizable images from the several books that were published in her lifetime in favor of lesser known gems from across her artistic career. If there is any pattern to Gottfried’s choice of subjects, it can be found in an inclusive embrace of the city’s diversity. Black, brown, and white are seen with equal attention and tenderness, as are gay, straight, and trans. She effortlessly ranges from the primness of a girl’s choir member in her Sunday best white lace to the expressiveness of disco patrons, from topless women and fire eaters back to a communion parade and Purim girls in sparkly tiaras. At a time when racial mixing was still met with less than full acceptance, her images of bi-racial couples, friends, and families on the streets, at the beach, and just horsing around on the sidewalks are uniformly warm and honest; she even saw incidental racial pairings on the subway, or on the Staten Island ferry, as part of the ordinary fabric of life in the city and celebrated th0se moments of tolerance, coexistence, and mutual respect.

Many of Gottfried’s best street portraits turn on resonant details and unusual finds. A duo with major afros, a pair of rollerskates, a treasured radio, a bandaged nose, an ecstatic jump rope, an albino busker trio, a no shirt and vest combo, a pair of Rikers Island musclemen, each becomes a signature New York moment of sorts, the eclectic quirkiness of the city seen with welcoming joy. There’s even a 1980s portrait of Rick James in a long fur coat, its composition a subtle reversal of Weegee’s famous image “The Critic”, with James looking back with unabashed swagger at two onlookers in similar furs.

Men kissing at Fire Island, women riding on the subway, teens trying to look cool, and countless couples of all shapes and sizes embracing, Gottfried documented the chaotic urgent melting pot of late 1970s New York with an eye for its small human wonders. While street-level engagement with strangers is never easy in a place like New York, she seems to have found the key to open, non judgemental interaction, her style giving people enough comfort to risk being themselves.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $4000 and $5500. Gottfried’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by André Frère Éditions (here). Hardcover, 24 x 32 cm, 184 pages, with 85 color reproductions. Includes essays in French/English by Hervé Barmasse, ... Read on.

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