To honor Arlene Gottfried a year after her untimely death, PowerHouse reissues the legendary “Sometimes Overwhelming” by the New Yorker photographer – a selection of early photographs taken in the 1970s and 1980s as she walked Brooklyn in search of living places, astonishing faces, unusual street scenes.
It is a spontaneity detached from ambition which draws her course, a thirst for observation. Refusing to study, she preferred to take an office job during the day and learn photography in the evening. Because this discipline would allow him to spend his time outside, immerse himself without restraint in the flow of his contemporaries.
Outside the city, she captures strong scenes in the big rally in Woodstock, where she went, in August 1969, as tens of thousands of young people of her generation, armed with a new camera that his father offered him . Subsequently, she multiplies the portraits on the beach and in the clubs. Having become a professional photojournalist, she has continued, over the past forty-five years, to feast on the picturesque scenes of New York life, to which she has devoted several books. “It took me a lifetime to consider my work as a work,” she observed soberly only two years ago.
“Sometimes Overwhelming” documents the New York before, when the breath of the disco and the premisses of R n’B made vibrate the walls of the Xenon and the homosexual community danced there with a provocative theatricality that she liked taking a picture – dripping furs and makeup, seductive bodies, costumes of feathers and panther, dildos big and small, even giant, nothing was inappropriate except for the lack of daring. The same carelessness prevailed in the streets, from Brooklyn to Soho via Central Park and the Lower East Side. The extravagances of Riis Beach where women show their breasts, the beginnings of the Big Apple Circus – where she returned every year, even if it had lost its simplicity of the early days – the clubs of Mid-Town (before 42nd Street to become the visual and commercial cacophony of today), all these images were for Arlene as “a verse in a song couplet”.
New York, which was then a city on the verge of bankruptcy, might be hard, shaken by insecurity, disfigured by collapsed buildings, “it was an oddly easier time,” she said, “less troubled, and especially less dull.
Some of these early photographs are already iconic, such as the one entitled “Angel with a Woman in Brighton Beach,” from 1976. As in many of Arlene Gottfried’s pictures, the contrast between them is a playful harmony. Faced with the near-nakedness of Angel, whose firmly crossed arms bring out the muscles, the sexagenarian displays an obvious relaxation, leaving his flowered arm on the back of the bench. His dark glasses reveal eyes as piercing as those, black and fixed on the lens, Angel. Their hair draws over their forehead a thick curly mass, frizzy with iodized air. They are pepper and salt together, improvised antonyms like the bodybuilder and the orthodox of another image.
Their unexpected commonalities are so many details that show that Arlene Gottfried did not judge, that she merely observed and played visual coincidences. More than a nostalgic tribute to a time and a city so often fantasized, this set of images has a movie look. A film whose actors would have been sorted out for their unshakable attitude or crazy eccentricity.
Photographs by Arlene Gottfried
Posted by PowerHouse Books