Crouched in a Manhattan storage unit, curator Daniel Cooney was wading through 50 years of work by late New York photographer Arlene Gottfried. With so much material – enough for 18 shows, he imagines – the “huge responsibility and huge privilege” of putting on the first show since Gottfried’s passing in the summer of 2017 felt very real. “I would just close my eyes and say, ‘Arelene, I need your help.’ I just tried to tune in on a very personal level and think, who is Arlene? Who was she to me?”
An unassuming “little Jewish lady” raised in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighbourhood, Gottfried was also a phenomenal street photographer. Having taken pictures since childhood (something that helped to quash her fear of photographing strangers), she’d built up a huge body of work but recognition of her talents in capturing the energy of New York’s less affluent neighbourhoods didn’t come until she was in her late 50s.
“She was someone who could really connect with people’s vulnerabilities, with total respect and total identification,” says Daniel, whose exhibition of Gottfried’s work A Lifetime of Wandering runs at the Daniel Cooney Fine Art gallery until April 28th. “She always photographed people on the fringes of society, and even though she might have been photographing a Puerto Rican community or African American gospel singers, I think she felt like she was one of them. She totally connected with people on a very heartfelt level.”
The pair first met six years ago after being introduced by Paul Moakley, the deputy director of Time Magazine, who had occasionally commissioned Gottfried. Walking into Daniel’s gallery dragging a suitcase of work, Gottfried started unpacking print after print of raw, intimate and sometimes humorous observations. “In most of the photographs people are looking right at her, at close range, so she obviously had to get right in and really talk to people and interact them,” says Daniel about the incongruousness of Gottfried and her portfolio. “She didn’t appear to have the gusto to be approaching all these people in the photographs; she just didn’t present herself in that way.”
Although she lived less than two miles from Daniel’s gallery, which specialises in photography, Gottfried was totally unknown to Daniel and the wider photographic community. “I remember talking to Paul [Moakley] and saying ‘Am I missing something? Why does no-one know her? Is she famous and I don’t know it?’” But spending more time with her, first putting on her debut commercial gallery exhibition, then a second shortly after, Daniel soon discovered what made her such a talented visual narrator. “I think it was her presence, it was very understated and very calm," he explains. “Arlene didn’t present herself as any kind of a threat. She had a great smile, she was small in stature. I think she had a genuine curiosity in people that you could pick up on.”
Not only was the debut exhibition a huge commercial success, it also helped put Gottfried on the map. “People were recognising her and coming into the gallery from seeing something in The Huffington Post or The Wall Street Journal,” Daniel says. “That was the start of her Renaissance, getting her dues late in life. But also interestingly for me, it really turned my gallery around because I was at a point where I was struggling with what my mission was here at the gallery. It really helped me shift the focus.”
Having studied at the Fashion Institute where she was the only woman on the programme, Daniel attributes Gottfried’s lack of fame partly to her nature but also to the sexism of the period. “She tried to make a living, getting assignments for newspapers. She did shoot for The New York Times and News Week but those assignments were few and far between,” he explains. “By the time she reached her sixties, she was used to being overlooked. Part of it was being a woman, part of it was that her gift was photography, not networking.”
Gottfried and Daniel started putting together their third exhibition, A Lifetime of Wandering, at the begging of last year. But Gottfried’s deteriorating health meant that she was cancelling more and more meetings. “I didn’t actually know she was as sick as she was,” says Daniel, “so I was pretty surprised when she passed away. I talked to her family, and I said I wanted to do this show and they have been 100% supportive.”
From unexpected shots of singers Rick James, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder to a portrait of three albino musicians that hung over Arlene’s kitchen door for most of their friendship, Daniel explains that he’s taken a very personal approach to the third exhibition. “This show is completely my view of who Arlene was as a photographer. It’s absolutely biased,” he says. “I absolutely loved her and I want her to be seen in her best light.”
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