Arlene Harriet Gottfried was a New York City street photographer who was known for recording the candid scenes of ordinary daily life in some of the city's less well-to-do neighborhoods; her work was not widely known until she was in her 50s.
Born in Coney Island, she was the daughter of Lillian (Zimmerman), a homemaker, and Max Gottfried, who ran a hardware store with his own father, above which the family lived. Gottfried was the older sister of comedian and actor Gilbert Gottfried
(1955–2022). When she was 9, Arlene moved to Crown Heights, where she became heavily influenced by the nearby, fast-growing Puerto Rican community. Later in the 70s, she moved with her Jewish immigrant family to the neighborhoods of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side.
When Gottfried was a teenager, her father gave her an old 35 mm camera, which she eventually took to Woodstock, even though she said, "I had no clue what I was doing"
. She credited her upbringing for giving her the ability to get intimate photographs of strangers: "We lived in Coney Island, and that was always an exposure to all kinds of people, so I never had trouble walking up to people and asking them to take their picture."
Gottfried graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology
taking photography courses. She worked as a photographer for an advertising agency before freelancing for publications such as The New York Times Magazine
, the Village Voice
, and The Independent
(London). She was a habitué of Nuyorican Poets Café
, a friend of Miguel Piñero, and on the Lower East Side sang gospel with the Eternal Light Community Singers
In 1991 while on assignment Gottfried photographed the Eternal Light Community Singers
, eventually singing with them, as well. Gottfried also sang gospel with the Jerriese Johnson East Village Gospel Choir
In her later years, she published five books of her work: The Eternal Light
(Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1999), Midnight
(powerHouse 2003), Sometimes Overwhelming
(2008), Bacalaitos and Fireworks
(powerHouse 2011), and Mommie: Three Generations of Women
Her photographs and archives have been exhibited at the Leica
Gallery in New York and Tokyo, the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C., the European House of Photography
(MEP), the Brooklyn Museum of Art
, and the New York Public Library
Gottfried died on August 8, 2017, from complications of breast cancer at her home in Manhattan at the age of 66 surrounded by friends and family.