Arlene Gottfried's Most Intimate Project

She’s affectionately known as the ‘singing photographer’, and her oddball portrayal of everyday life over several decades has delighted many. But Arlene Gottfried’s latest book, Mommie, her most intimate yet, is certainly the one that’s touched its audience the most.

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© Arlene Gottfried, from the series Mommie

When Eric Idle wrote the lyrics to ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ for Monty Python Life Of Brian, he must have done so with Arlene Gottfried in mind.

Gottfried, a quirky New York eccentric who ambles through life with a camera strapped around her neck, has a knack for capturing everyday people doing everyday things – that is, humanity at its gloriously unselfconscious best. One need only look at the cover image of her book, Sometimes Overwhelming, to appreciate her eye for foibles. The juxtaposition of a Hasidic man on a beach, dressed entirely in black, stood next to a naked bodybuilder flexing his pecks, speaks volumes about Gottfried’s eye for the incongruous. 

3_160818_172934.jpg#asset:859© Arlene Gottfried, from the series Mommie

Gothamist, a daily weblog about New York and its pasticcio of inhabitants, dubbed her a ‘New York Treasure’ – and she certainly is – but in her native Coney Island and elsewhere in New York circles, she’s known as the 'singing photographer', performing as part of various Gospel choirs, and as a soloist. ‘At the finale of the Look 3 Photography Festival in June 2012, accompanied by a local Charlottesville, Virginia Gospel choir, I sang below the projection of photographs from my four books – The Eternal Light, Midnight, Sometimes Overwhelming and Bacalaitos & Fireworks,’ it says on Gottfried’s website – a live performance that indeed befits her moniker.

Mommie, her latest book, is a personal journey in which Gottfried pays homage to the strongest and most important women in her life – her mother and grandmother. More touching than sentimental, Mommie captures the vulnerability that often comes with ageing and poor health, and it does so movingly, if only because it’s told through the unconditional love and devotion of a daughter. Gottfried’s sister Karen, who shared the role of caregiver, also features prominently in the series. Mommie is a moving tribute. It’s a story about love and kinship – and certainly Gottfried’s most evocative work to date.

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© Arlene Gottfried, from the series Mommie

Gottfried fell into photography – quite literally – and it certainly wasn’t because she felt a burning desire to capture the vagaries of life through a viewfinder. Rather, it was because she had enrolled in an evening course at college soon after graduating from high school and needed to do something productive, something purposeful. ‘My parents wanted me to go on to university after high school, but my grades were low and I didn’t enjoy studying. Finally, they convinced me to go to college at night, and when I looked at the curriculum and saw photography, I thought I would have to do something no matter what,’ she explains. And so, without forethought or reflection, she took up photography. 

Today, her shoots are whimsical, capturing New Yorkers in all their unconventional magnificence, and finding the idiosyncratic in the seemingly mundane. ‘I like to photograph things that stand out from the ordinary. I just look for people mainly doing things that are either unusual or very common.’

Mommie, however, is vastly more thoughtful. It's a visceral body of work, told through the eyes of a deeply devoted daughter wishing to capture the last remaining moments with her dearest relatives. ‘I started photographing my mother and grandmother when they became older and unwell in an attempt to hold on to them. But, of course, this was not possible.’

2_160818_173455.jpg#asset:861© Arlene Gottfried, from the series Mommie

Gottfried is rather philosophical in her approach to photography, and perhaps even more so in her approach to life. ‘Ultimately, all experiences make us who we are,’ she says, determined to carry on as ever, meandering the streets of New York and capturing life’s peculiarities as they unfold.

Gottfried, who lives and works in New York City, is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Berenice Abbott International Competition of Women’s Documentary Photography. She has exhibited at the Leica Gallery in New York and Tokyo, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Her photographs can be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, The New York Public Library and Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.

Her books, Mommie, Bacalaitos & Fireworks, Sometimes Overwhelming and Midnight, are all available from powerHouse Books. The Eternal Light was published by Dewi Lewis Publishing

To learn more about Mommie, visit Arlene Gottfried’s PHmuseum profile.

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