Arlene Gottfried didn’t pick up a camera until she graduated from high school. Born in Coney Island, she spent most of her teenage years living on President Street, between Rogers and Nostrand, in Crown Heights. Not sure of what she wanted to study in college, she got a job as a typist in Manhattan and began taking a class on photography in Brooklyn Heights, at the behest of her mother. Immediately, she found the camera hard to put down.
“I had grown up in Brooklyn, and so my first photographs were of life on the street,” she wrote in a biographical sketch included in “Sometimes Overwhelming,” a collection of her work first published in 2008 and reissued in September by Dumbo’s powerHouse Books. “I turned my camera on friends, relatives and neighbors in my ethnically diverse area.”
Gottfried later studied photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology and would go on work on commercial projects and as a staff photographer at an advertising agency. But her passion remained on the streets, where she continued to take pictures whenever she wasn’t working.
“My photographs were like souvenirs; I liked to collect moments and remembrances of the people in the places that I visited,” she wrote. “If I got great photographs out of them as well, that was the icing on the cake.”
Her camera gravitates towards personalities that are bursting at the seams, and her subjects respond to her presence with warmth. A photograph from 1982 shows an old man on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, leaning defiantly against his cane and posing with his small dog. In a photograph from 1976, a mustachioed man rides a tricycle on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, with a grin as wide as the spinning wheels.
Gottfried passed away from breast cancer in 2017, at the age of 66 (her health issues are detailed in “Gilbert,” a documentary about her brother, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried, that was released the same year as her death). In the years since her passing, her work has achieved a greater visibility and she is only now beginning to be recognized as a necessary part of the long, male-dominated story of street photography.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Holiday 2018 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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