Hailing from Brooklyn, Jewish-American photographer Arlene Gottfried (1950-2017) was a New York original: a zaftig bon vivant who could be found in the city’s legendary nightclubs snapping photographs as she danced the night away or in a church choir belting out a gospel solo on Sunday mornings. Although she was shy and unassuming, Gottfried had guts and loved to celebrate the fearless and flamboyant characters that gave the city its edge.
Palling around with playwright and actor Miguel Piñero, Gottfried frequented his establishment, the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, back when few dared to go east of First Avenue. “During white flight, I got very in touch with the African American and Puerto Rican communities,” Gottfried observed in her final book, Mommie: Three Generations of Women.
“I felt very comfortable going to the Lower East Side to hang out. There were a lot of ethnic types, working class people, and I felt a connection. They weren’t exotic or different. I knew them as neighbors and friends. They have an expressiveness and color. I like the emotional connection and the passion the people have. I was drawn to it and I didn’t feel like I was outside looking in. I had friends.”
In August 1984, Gottfried met Midnight at Nuyorican Poet’s Café. At the age of 13, Midnight ran away from home, became a street hustler to support himself, did time in prison, and may have even robbed a bank. With his uninhibited and carefree persona, Midnight was the perfect muse for Gottfried, comfortable performing for the camera as well as allowing himself to be seen in a vulnerable light. But as Gottfried would discover, there was more to Midnight than met the eye.
“Arlene loved Midnight,” says gallerist Daniel Cooney, who has curated a selection of poignant portraits for the new exhibition, “Arlene Gottfried: Midnight”. Made over a 20-year period, Gottfried’s photographs are an extraordinary document of one man’s life, chronicling the physical and psychological changes he goes through while living with schizophrenia.
“They are incredible intimate portraits,” says Cooney. Gottfried’s casual yet carefully composed photographs offer a look at the full expression of Midnight’s humanity. Moving chronologically, we see him through her eyes: beautiful, sexy, playful, silly, fearless, suave, dapper, and just a little dangerous. But as time progressed, Gottfried went beneath the surface into the more complicated and challenging aspects of Midnight’s life.
As Gottfried got to know Midnight, she noticed he would become withdrawn, not speaking for days. “There is a photograph of him where he looks like Jesus, with very long hair and staring off into space. He was delusional at that time but I did not know it then,” Gottfried wrote in her first monograph, Midnight.
One day, Midnight began telling Gottfried the story of the crucifixion, saying, “The time is now!” She became nervous and frightened, not knowing what had caused this change in his character. The next morning, he arrived at her door, adorned in scarves. He raised a wooden Japanese sword, and announced he was going to walk to Canada.
Instead, Midnight climbed to the top of the Williamsburg Bridge in order to jump into the East River. Police successfully intervened and brought him to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. He called Gottfried and told her what had happened. It was the first time she witnessed an episode, but it would not be the last.
Loving You Too Long
Over the years, Gottfried witnessed Midnight spinning through a cycle of illness, hospitalization, imprisonment, medication, and therapy. After a while, Midnight would go off his meds, and the cycle would begin again, the voices in his mind telling him to take a bus to Anywhere, U.S.A.
“When he reached a destination, depending on his condition, he would do something drastic, like the time he set his hand on fire and wandered for miles without food or shelter until someone finally called the police and he was taken away in an ambulance,” Gottfried wrote in Midnight. “Then it would start all over again.”
Despite the pain, Gottfried’s love remained unconditional. “For whatever reason, destiny, whatever, we got into each other’s life and it unfolded,” she revealed in Mommie. “I didn’t know he was going to become ill when I first met him. I didn’t turn my back on him.” If Midnight ran away from the hospital, she would bring him back. If he needed welfare, she would accompany him to the Social Security office to help him register for public assistance. He might disappear for months only to show up in her lobby unannounced.
Just before Midnight was published in 2002, he vanished once again. Gottfried hadn’t heard from him in months. Then, one evening her buzzer rang. Midnight had returned from a trip to Utah, where he had gotten lost. Although he was extremely thin, he remained debonair and arrived at the book launch at the International Center of Photography in a zoot suit he had purchased for the occasion.
Standing in the Need
“Arlene Gottfried was loyal and caring,” says gallerist Daniel Cooney, “It’s not easy or convenient to have a relationship with someone who’s very sick, but she didn’t shy away from that. She was a gutsy woman. She wasn’t just taking pictures of Midnight when he was down and out. It wasn’t like she sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to photograph mental illness.’ Arlene liked to photograph her life and Midnight fascinated her.”
Indeed, Gottfried found Midnight’s love for life profoundly endearing. Drawn to his humor, playfulness, and appreciation for art, music, dancing, singing, and film, Gottfried cherished every aspect of Midnight’s being. “From some place in his silence and observation, he possessed an acute intuition and sensitivity to life,” she wrote in Midnight.
It was a sensibility they shared, one that allowed them to create these images from a collaborative place, bound together by a shared love and mutual respect. Photographs that were taken because that is who Gottfried was and what she did. She bore witness simply because someone must. “I never thought Midnight was going to be a book,” she revealed in Mommie. “When I first put the work together, after it being in a box for years and years, we looked at it on the slide projector and we stood up from the table and he just reached out and shook my hand. He didn’t say anything. It let me know he was touched and he got it.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
“Arlene Gottfried: Midnight” is on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York, from January 20–March 5, 2022.