Arlene Gottfried, whose arresting images of ordinary people in New York’s humbler neighborhoods earned her belated recognition as one of the finest street photographers of her generation, died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 66.
Her brother, the comedian and actor Gilbert Gottfried, said the cause was complications of breast cancer.
Ms. Gottfried roamed the streets of New York, camera in hand, finding opportunity at every corner. Much of her work recorded the daily routines and local characters in the city’s Puerto Rican areas, where cultural exuberance coexisted with poverty and urban blight.
In one of her most celebrated images, a nun leads a group of Roman Catholic schoolgirls in Communion dresses down a trash-strewn street lined with old cars, one of them with a plugged-in television set on the hood tuned to a western.
She photographed a gospel choir in Harlem; followed a club dancer and former convict known as Midnight as he declined into mental illness, a journey recorded in her book “Midnight” (2003); and turned her lens on her own family in her mother’s final years for the photo essay “Mommie,” published last year.
She struck pay dirt on a nude beach in Jacob Riis Park in 1980, when a Hasidic Jew, dressed in black hat and overcoat on a scorching summer day, unexpectedly appeared. A nude bodybuilder approached and asked her to take a picture of the two together “because,” he said, “I’m Jewish.” She obliged. The unforgettable photo shows a flexing nude, smiling proudly, next to his thoroughly nonplused and emphatically clothed companion.
Ms. Gottfried’s subjects were never specimens, held up for cold examination. She was part documentarian, part social worker, a warm and sometimes lingering presence in the lives she recorded. She spent 20 years with Midnight and ended up joining the gospel choir that was the subject of her first book, “The Eternal Light,” published in 1999.
“How her eye captures people, and how she touches them, that’s hard to explain,” her brother told The Guardian in 2014. “Someone else couldn’t see the funny or odd or touching thing, and capture it. Kind of like how a singer can have a great song, but not know…