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Photographer Arlene Gottfried Captured the Curious Faces and Peculiar Stories of New Yorkers in the 1970s and 80s

Hassid and Jewish Bodybuilder, 1980

Hassid and Jewish Bodybuilder, 1980

Mommie kissing Bubbie on Delancey Street, New York, 1979

Mommie kissing Bubbie on Delancey Street, New York, 1979

New York photographer Arlene Gottfried’s mother famously told her, “Arlene– just don’t wander!” a request that was not always heeded as the younger Gottfried roamed the city—from East Harlem to Brighton Beach, Queens to Coney Island, in search of curious faces and peculiar stories. Her most well-recognized images picture the Big Apple in the 1970s and 80s, when its streets were both dangerous and irresistible, when AIDS burned it to the ground and it rose time and again from the ashes.

Gottfried’s history has more than once been dubbed a “life of wandering,” a phrase that originated with the photographer in conversation with TIME, but her new book, Mommie, reveals that no matter how far she ventured, the photographer always returned home. A chronicle of thirty-five years in the life (and sometimes death) of her grandmother, mother, and sister, the volume has been almost a decade in the making.

Mommie is set in the Lower East Side, amongst a family of Jewish women, emigrated three generations ago with Gottfried’s grandmother from Odessa, Russia. The photographer’s father passed away young, leaving behind a small and closely knit family. Photographing these three women, each representative of a single generation, came as organically to Gottfried as her images of New York did; only when the elder two women approach old age did the photographer snap consciously, as a way of holding fast to the people she loved. When her mother and grandmother kissed each other goodbye, it became a part of the ritual to call Arlene over to take their picture.

Mommie is a catalog of both the monumental happenings and the moments between them, an unflinching account of the delight, the comfort, the grief, and perhaps most of all the longing that can only be born from years of categorical, unconditional, and indelible love. Gottfried’s grandmother lived to see one hundred and four, and her mother continued to care for the family even after she lost her sight and fell ill. Her sister gave birth to a child. Throughout it all, Arlene continued to photograph both her family and the world around them, careful never to wander too far from her mother’s grasp.

Gottfried’s images both of New York and of her immediate family are the kind that scorch your eyes and linger long after the initial impact has cooled. The New York street photographs are published under the title Sometimes Overwhelming, which along with Mommie, is available through powerHouse Books. Gottfried is represented by Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

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From Mommie

KISS, Halloween Parade, 1978

KISS, Halloween Parade, 1978

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From Mommie

BabyinaPaperBagHat, 1974

Baby in a Paper Bag Hat, 1974

Guy with Radio, East 7th St, 1977

Guy with Radio, East 7th St, 1977

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From Mommie

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From Mommie

Isabel Croft jumping rope, Brooklyn, 1972

Isabel Croft jumping rope, Brooklyn, 1972

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From Mommie

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From Mommie

Kissing on the Highway, Queens, 1980

Kissing on the Highway, Queens, 1980

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From Mommie

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From Mommie

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From Mommie

All images © Arlene Gottfried / Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York

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