Inspired by Arlene Gottfried
“Unless you're doing something that's a very feminine kind of a topic, I don't think gender is really all that visible.”
As a journalist, sometimes, it's hard to know what you're walking into. Sometimes the stories you're chasing, the ones that sound so delicious at first, fizzle out into nothing. And sometimes you get invited to report on something or interview someone who's more amazing than what you were anticipating. You land in the middle of an ongoing dialogue that is so intriguing, meet a cultural phenomenon who remains—for years—inspiring.
That was how I felt when I met the artist and photographer Arlene Gottfried in 2015, ahead of an exhibition of her work at Cologne's Galerie Bene Taschen. I had no idea what I was walking into when I took on this interview. I didn't realize just how much both her art and her words, so carefully chosen, would influence me.
Gottfried, who died in 2017, grew up in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, a New Yorker who captured the city at its grittiest—and arguably, most interesting—time. Her candid portraiture of the men and women around her provided snapshots of a daily life that was foreign to a woman like me, who knew Alphabet City only when it was gentrifying, who first stayed in Crown Heights after the Caribbean immigrants had long since arrived and the brownstones were being bought up again by yuppies. Looking at her work documenting these neighborhoods in the decades before I’d ever arrived in a way that was so intimate and revealing I felt as though I'd been given access to an archive of a New York past, time traveling into a world I would never have otherwise seen.
She had access to these places, these people at a revolutionary time and yet her status as resident gave her the luxury of a local’s eye: the images she shot were more of a snapshot of the everyday. As she told me, “For me, it was natural to go out of the house, to be out. So when I got a camera, I went out with a camera.” In a sense, her images relay that feeling that the original street style photographers were trying to convey—capturing a moment of the everyday.
“When I shoot,” she said, “(I)t’s mostly something about the way a person is, or who they are, what they’re doing, it could be anything that’s attractive to me. Why people? I don’t really know.”
While remaining modest in our conversation about her ability to find the ideal people to portray, her talent lay in being able to find these interesting characters, setting them, and clicking the shutter at just the right second to solidify a fleeting moment in time. You get the feeling when looking at her work that she is both removed from and a part of the scenes that her photographs relay; in speaking to her, I had the feeling that this balance between closeness and distance was something she felt in her daily life, when she carried a 35 mm with her on strolls, always at the ready.
On women’s work and gendering photography
“It's changed so much with women working. They're more visible now. … (I)n my first photography class, I was the only young woman in the class and I had a lump in my throat, like I wanted to cry, only guys there. But it wound up being a very supportive environment and I learned a lot.”
Those portraits—their aesthetic, their setting—may have benefited from her education, both at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and as a photographer for the advertising industry. But they also—I’d argue—were made possible in that new, illuminating way because of her gender. As a woman, she can take a picture of another woman nearly naked, ironing, her hair in rollers, in a way that is entirely desexualized while hinting at how this woman was flipping traditional gender roles on their head (she is, after all, ironing what looks to be a peacock-print scarf, a garment she'll be adorning that night at a glittering disco and not her husband’s Oxford shirts).
Her images of the older women of the neighborhood, the grandmothers who will take no shit from anyone, portrays those who otherwise appear invisible in our society as not only worthy of our attention but also of the looks of others' who would in any other context be more demanding, steadfast in our line of vision.
I asked Gottfried about that, about her pioneering work as a woman photographer, and the kind of access she might have gotten as a woman working in a predominantly male field. Yet she didn't really seem to be having any of that. After talking briefly about her experiences in the advertising industry--noting that some of her male counterparts felt threatened, while others refused to give her work--she said that she felt her gender didn’t change her perspective and the repertoire that resulted from her years behind the camera. “Unless you're doing something that's a very feminine kind of a topic, I don't think gender is really all that visible.”
Which is to say that although her photographic repertoire often showcased the women and children of these New York neighborhoods, the results for her were less about their gender than about capturing a particular scene, a moment in time. Something I try to keep in mind when it comes to my own writing: we’re here to document our everyday realities. — Courtney Tenz