by Anna Dunn
A Lifetime of Wandering
DANIEL COONEY FINE ART | FEBRUARY 28 – APRIL 28, 2018
The truest way to know a city is to pay close attention to life happening in its fringes.
In New York City the 1970s and ’80s, when Arlene Gottfried was shooting the photographs on display at Daniel Cooney Gallery, she needed look no further than the streets. Parking lots in Brooklyn were empty of cars but full of boys roasting a pig on a spit. Dark doorways on every corner built for quick love, or the broken solace of a needle and a spoon. Hard and soft bodies flaunting themselves along the wooden boardwalks and sandy beaches of Brighton or Coney Island.
For A Life of Wandering, Daniel Cooney sifted through the artist’s storage unit selecting photographs. Arlene Gottfried died of cancer complications in August of last year. When Daniel and I met at the gallery a month ago he showed me what he had chosen, in real time changing his mind, or sighing and saying, “Well I have to add this one,” or “There is just no way to go wrong with these.” His feeling of affection for his friend and her work was evocative of the work itself. As I flipped through several of her books it became clear that her photographs had to do with the way that the artist loved.
There is no emptiness in Arlene Gottfried’s photographs. Instead they are of connection. Some of two people, often lovers, and sometimes interracial, reflect not only the love between them, but also the affection they have for the photographer and the pleasure they are experiencing being photographed, recognized, looked at. These photos are celebratory—about skin tone and texture, about looking and touching and intimacy.
There is easy romance in the New York of that era, but the living was undeniably hard, and it’s clear in her five published books that it was important for Arlene Gottfried to blur the line between making art and living. In a talk at SVA in 2015 the artist never speaks of composition or lighting, but instead of the moment that led to a photograph like the one on the cover of her black and white book Sometimes Overwhelming (2008). The image is of a Hasidic man standing on a beach next to a fully nude bodybuilder. She remembers the bodybuilder running up to her and asking for the picture to be taken because both men were Jewish. Even without the context the photograph reminds us our difference is also our greatest common denominator.
The next picture she pauses on is from her first book The Eternal Light (1999), which centered around a church choir she had seen perform in an old gas station on Avenue A. It is of a small African American girl holding a doll. “This picture changed my life completely,” she says. The girl died a day later at the hand of her mother’s boyfriend. Arlene attended the little girl’s funeral bringing her mother the last pictures ever taken of her daughter, and returned to the choir, eventually joining and singing herself. Later Arlene’s own mother would give her the title: The Singing Photographer.
Her following book, like one I’ve never seen before, called Midnight (2003), chronicles a deep and lasting friendship she had with a man struggling with mental illness. It celebrates the humor and care of her relationship with Midnight, while investigating the precariousness of his living. Her last book called Mommie (2015) is of the women in her family. There is a kind of reverence for life as it’s passing in these photographs, especially when capturing tender moments such as her mother and grandmother kissing each other goodbye.
On the walls at Daniel Cooney are photographs of Midnight, her mother and grandmother, Diana Ross, Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Miguel Pina, even two Polaroid portraits of Arlene herself. Her famous comedian brother Gilbert Gottfried shuffled across the room as I bought a few postcards from her grumpy pre-teen nephew. The show has the feeling of a retrospective and at the opening among her family and friends I found myself missing her. It’s an odd feeling, to miss a woman you’ve never met, but there is something of the uncanniness of living captured in all of her pictures.
Some photographs are loud, inky vintage cibachrome prints like the one of a white woman in a bathing suit holding her brown baby (even the child regards the photographer with a kind of familiarity) or another of a choir singer in a rich red dress. Others are quiet, like the black and white portrait of an African American teenager leaning on his bicycle on 42nd street, eyes looking up at the camera with what can only be described as the daunting sincerity of youth.
None are as heart wrenching as the portrait of murdered trans activist, self identified drag queen, and West Village icon Marsha P. Johnson. Caught dramatically in the bloom of Arlene’s flash, which could as easily be headlights as it could be eternity barrelling down on her, she stands in an empty city street, shoes and purse tossed aside, hands crossed over her knee, leaning flirtatiously toward the camera. The streets are where Johnson lived and loved and lead a revolution and ultimately lost her life. Here she is frozen in the crosshairs of race, gender identity, queerness, the AIDS epidemic, mental health, homelessness, survival sex.
I felt not a fetishization for the past but a kind of limitless nostalgia for the fleeting present, which is at the center of Arlene’s work. Each photograph points us quietly to strength and dignity within suffering, asking us to love these daring humans: the one standing in the street as well as the one holding her camera, recording the relentless wildness at the tender and often troubled heart of New York City.
ANNA DUNN is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.