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Profile | Arlene Gottfried: Bacalaitos & Fireworks

A celebration of Nuyorican culture as it came up on the streets of New York City in the 1970s and '80s.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Summer Afternoon

Arlene Gottfried is a New York original. Hailing from Brooklyn, Ms. Gottfried moved from Coney Island to Crown Heights when she was just ten years old, living in the area during the 1960s, as white flight and Civil Rights changed the face of the neighborhood. In the 1970s, Gottfried lived in the Village while studying photography at F.I.T. After her father had died, the family moved to the Lower East Side. Back then, it was a Puerto Rican neighborhood, rich in traditions native to the island, which, when combined with local influence, produced its very own style: Nuyorican.

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Nuyorican is rhythms, horns, strings, and winds—or it is simply spoken word filling the air. Best exemplified by Miguel Piñero’s Nuyorican Poet’s Café, it is a state of mind in the place to be. Nuyorican is a street vendor selling fried codfish fritters and fireworks on July 4, announcing his wares as he made his way up and down the street shouting: “Bacalaitos y Fireworks!”

Puerto Rican Day Parade

Puerto Rican Day Parade

With her first camera in hand, Gottfried began photographing her neighbors and friends for a series of photographs that celebrate Nuyorican culture with warmth, wisdom, and compassion. First collected together as a monograph published by powerHouse Books in 2011, a selection of the work is on view in Arlene Gottfried: Bacalaitos & Fireworks at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York, now through April 16, 2016.

The exhibition features approximately 30 photographs made in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, and Spanish Harlem, revealing Gottfried’s intimately felt a connection to her subjects. Drawn to the bold and the beautiful, Gottfried possesses an exquisite sensitivity for the soul and can tap into the ethereal nature of the people in her world. It is in this way that we often feel the deeper undercurrents of life, the tragedies that accompany triumph. As a portraitist, Gottfried is unparalleled in her ability to present to us the endlessly compelling spectacle of the enigmatic properties of personality that lie deep within the flesh.

El Cotorito

El Cotorito

She remembers, “I used to just go with the flow. What I was drawn to was so varied, but the crumbling buildings were part of it. My mother lived on Avenue A and Fourth Street with my sister and brother. I used to go around the neighborhood to see what was going on. It was about the people: where they were and what they were doing. I loved the atmosphere, the great music, and food. We used to eat fried chicken over on Third Street and Avenue B. They were selling short joints in bags on a broken stoop and we’d eat that at night—and that was more fun than going to a fancy restaurant.”

Gottfried was a local, and as such, she lived the life to the fullest, the camera present at so many moments that reveal the casual grandeur and drama of daily life. In a Gottfried photograph, there is a sense of being in the mix and in the know, always welcomed by those you encounter on your way to and fro. And this is because of who Arlene Gottfried is: a force of nature with an archive to prove it. Let’s call her the quiet storm. After thirty years, she is receiving her due.



Bacalaitos & Fireworks is Gottfried’s second show at the gallery; her first show, Sometimes Overwhelming, sold out in 2014. As the decades pass, Gottfried’s photographs taken on increasing importance, becoming artifacts of a passing age. The New York City of an Arlene Gottfried has all but faded away, leaving behind a resonant trail of Kodakchrome red in its wake.

Photographs ©Arlene Gottfried, courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.