Revisiting the Work of Iconic NYC Street Photographer Arlene Gottfried

A parade of children participating communion walking on the street.

Arlene Gottfried was a striking street photographer of 1970s and 1980s New York City, when Times Square was more gritty than it was Disney, to say the least. The archive of her work amounts to hundreds of boxes of film which her family is working to preserve.

Gottfried passed away in 2017 at the age of 66 due to breast cancer, leaving her archive to her siblings Karen and Gilbert Gottfried, the late comedian and actor. The New York Times recently covered the effort to maintain both Arlene Gottfried’s physical work and her legacy, noting the photographer asked her brother and his wife, Dara Gottfried, to make sure her career is remembered. However, shortly after her death, Gilbert Gottfried himself fell ill, eventually passing away in 2022 at the age of 67.

A man in Times Square does a kick.

A man does a trick while wearing roller skates.

Rick James seen among others.

Now, Dara Gottfried is busy taking on the task of handling Arlene’s art, digitizing it, and, in the long term, determining where it should go and how to keep the images accessible to the public.

“Arlene wanted her legacy kept alive in museums or shows or galleries,” Dara Gottfried told The Times. “Gilbert and I wanted to honor her wishes to have her work shared with the world, so it could live on forever.”

Someone leans against a car.

A man and woman on a beach boardwalk.

A woman sits on a subway underneath some graffiti.

Daniel Cooney of New York City art gallery Daniel Cooney Fine Art tells PetaPixel that there have been scores of New York City street photographers. He asks, rhetorically, what is it that sets Arlene Gottfried’s work apart?

“Her work was all kind of very much about her approach,” he says. “No one else could make those pictures because they’re specific to the way she saw the world. And so, in a way, even though they’re street photographs and they’re about the streets of New York City, they’re very revealing about who she was because she put herself into it.”

Cooney began working with Arlene Gottfried over a decade ago and remains involved with her family in helping keep the photographer’s work visible. Cooney gave Arlene her first show and put on another with her work while she was still alive. Since her passing, Cooney says he’s put on three shows featuring her work.

A man under a veil.

A woman jumps rope.

A couple shares a kiss.

Additionally, Arlene’s work will be featured in Paris and Germany this year before Cooney hosts another with Arlene’s image, which is likely to take place next year.

He says the plan right now is to focus on exhibiting the artist’s work while the family, with whom he works closely, eventually finds a permanent home for Arlene Gottfried’s archive. It’s an undertaking that comes with as many obstacles as reasons to get it right. For example, Cooney tells PetaPixel that taking on 10,000 to 15,000 photographs, storing and displaying them properly, cataloging, and digitizing them, takes a great deal of resources. Museum space and public library budgets are finite. And it’s possible to run into more mundane issues, for example, a curator one is working with could leave for a different post.

“It’s not that easy,” Cooney says. “It’s a very complicated process.”

A man laying down.

A man in a cowboy hat looks at the camera from above his sunglasses.

Meanwhile, finding the right place is even more difficult than simply finding any place to take the massive archive. The family would prefer the collection is not taken in without keeping it accessible.

“If somebody’s writing up a dissertation on street photography, you want them to have access, and a lot of archives won’t allow access to things like that,” Cooney says. “So it has to be the right place, and there’s so many variables.”

A shirtless man with tattoos looks back at the camera.

A child dresses as a member of the band Kiss for Halloween.

And there is a great deal to gain from studying Arlene Gottfried’s work. Beyond the images, there’s a great deal to learn about how to approach street photography one can glean from her images.

“She had a lot of empathy and compassion because she was always photographing people that were kind of on the fringes of culture or on the fringes of society, say. And she never approached those people with anything but respect. She always approached people as equals, and it’s a robust and exciting view of the time that she lived in,” Cooney explains to PetaPixel.

He notes that the result is seen in the photographs themselves. There’s an ease and comfort in Arlene Gottfried’s subjects, which is made even more impressive when, as Cooney points out, she doesn’t stay with these subjects for long.

Activist Marsha P. Johnson.

Singer Diana Ross smiles at the camera.

“For the most part, for the work that people know, she wasn’t really spending time getting to know people,” he says. “I mean, most of the people she photographed, she would meet, take a few pictures, and then move on. So it wasn’t like she had time to gain trust through conversation. It was just sort of her demeanor and her body language.”

Cooney further paints the picture: Arlene Gottfried, standing at a petite five feet, without a photographer on the streets of New York City. He notes that she had a shyness about her and wouldn’t walk into a scene and try to take over. Instead, she was driven by true curiosity, coupled with respect, and able to gain the trust of gang members and heroin addicts, as well as children and ordinary people riding the subway. Beyond her authentic interest in her subjects, Arlene Gottfried found kinship in them.

A man sits on a stool.

“I think that she was endlessly curious about the world, trying to make sense of it and trying to make sense of her place in the world,” Cooney says. “She wasn’t out photographing people because they were different from her. She was photographing people that were the same as her. She was photographing similarities in herself.”

He says her prime motivation was being an artist.

“And so,” he continues, “inherent in that is kind of being an outsider.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Mr. Cooney’s name. We apologize for the error.

Image credits: Photographs by Arlene Gottfried, Courtesy of Daniel Cooney