For The Love Of Godlis
While art critics and historians cut up and categorize the different styles and intentions of modern day photography, it is street photography that remains elusive—hard to to describe, easy to practice, and close to impossible to truly master. Because when all the world’s your stage, how do you choreograph your actors, choose wardrobe, dialogue, design lighting and basically stop time, while creating something truly timeless? Oh, and all in 1/30th of a second. Yeah, go ahead and put down your Leica and think about that for a moment. It’s an intuitive skillset, one that also depends on the artists’ own experience and their ability to simultaneously be apart from and a part of the scene itself.
But in terms of street photography’s ability to capture something unique about society, when practiced by a master over many years, it reveals as much about us as it does about the artist, that is if you look carefully enough. So let’s take a hard look at the work of David Godlis. Known for his classic images in and out of the punk scene at CBGB’s, his photographs tell a story about a shifting American society, that point where cities were crumbling and everyone was just a bit over the softness and idealism of the decades before. The streets were tough, the faces were hard, and there was an edge about town. And whether in New York, Boston, or Miami, his coincidental locations were themselves important characters in his continuing human drama.
“I got my first camera in 1970 on a whim. It was just a new technological thing for me. I had seen the film Blow Up a few years before and I thought to myself “photographers look kind of cool.” And so I got a camera, a Pentax Spotmatic and I started shooting pictures. At that time I thought I wanted to be a writer because I thought I was decent and I was going to school for English Literature, but then I met a lot of people who were really good at writing. Way better than I was. And I was intimidated. So I started taking pictures of those people I was with and everybody was liking my pictures a lot. Like literally liking, not Facebook liking!
I would just take the film to the drugstore—a roll of Tri-X—take it to the drugstore, get a batch of black and white 4 x 6 prints back and just show them to friends and hand them around and make everyone look like rock stars. I didn’t actually know any rock stars, but my friends were all hippy-ish rock star lookin’, and I’d take pictures and make them look like a band. Everybody liked my pictures so I thought, “maybe I’m good at this?” I was getting a good reaction. And then I started going to the library at Boston University and looking at photo books and pulling them off the shelves and I sort of discovered it all, I think via photo magazines at the time, they’d have history of photography articles. And I’d go and pull a Cartier-Bresson book off the shelf that was in the library. Or look at a Walker Evans book.
And so photography started seeping into my brain. And I realized there was this “thing” called photography, aside from just having a camera and taking pictures. And as I started to dip into different photographers from different eras, I decided that I wanted to develop my own film. But, unless you have someone to show you, it’s a little complicated. So, I took a course at BU. I had to sneak into a course that was in the School of Journalism, because the guys who wanted to be journalists had to take a photo course that they didn’t want to take. It was a requirement.
But I was a guy who was coming from another department and I really wanted to take the course. So the professor said, “You’re not supposed to be in here!” And I said, “Please let me stay!” And he let me stay. He was kind of a nudnik because you know, you’d do an assignment, and he’d give it an A, B, C, or D, as if you could rate a photograph? You know, pretty much it was like if you focused on the nose instead of the eyes you got a B-, because you’re supposed to focus on the eyes not the nose. Okay, so you learn how to focus on the eyes not the nose. And he was kind of funny and he liked me because I was the only one who really wanted to be in the course.
So I went from that to like, “now I really got to go to a photography school of sorts, not a journalism school.” I applied to the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston and they rejected me because I didn’t have any art background. But the guy who was the photography teacher there really liked me and he was like, “if you do this maybe you can get in.” But I just wanted to get in a dark room and learn how to do stuff and be around people that were shooting and I found this place called Imageworks. As it turns out it was a really cool school. Maybe cool schools don’t get you fancy degrees, but you do meet a lot of cool people! And that’s where I met Nan Goldin and Stanley Greene, who became a serious war photographer.
A lot of photographers on their days off from other schools, like RISD and SVA, came through. So Lee Friedlander came through and Garry Winogrand came through and everybody sort of passed through there because everybody needed work. And so, then I was around tons of really young, enthusiastic street photographers. This was in 1973. The timing is interesting because the course I took at BU was in late ‘72 and it was right when the Diane Arbus show went up at the Museum of Modern Art. It blew me away.
Really when you think about it, she died in ‘71. They had that show together by the end of ‘72. And I came down to New York, and I remember the lines of people and with her pictures of strange people—the freaks—when I think back on it, is the New York Dolls. But I wasn’t aware of that, I was still into just photography. But I came to New York and I can guarantee you that the people going to the New York Dolls were looking at that same show. It was a touchstone for everyone culturally. That was just another wide opening of my eyes.
So that was beginning of ‘73 and then I started school fall of ‘73 and I was already, at this point, seeing myself in the line of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank and trying to figure out Lee Friedlander. I was looking back to Walker Evans and Weegee and just everything I could get my hands on. I was in the dark room shooting way more than I was learning. I wasn’t going to class very much I was just in the dark room working and shooting new stuff. And then I went to Miami Beach in the spring of ‘74 to visit my grandparents in what is now South Beach.
I would spend a week to ten days, walking around photographing by myself, pretty much, there was another friend of mine that was there and we would meet every couple of days, but it’s better to photograph on your own. And I was walking up and down what is now South Beach, and it’s all Jewish old ladies and they were all like “you’ve got to meet my granddaughter! How long are you going be here?” You know? But that was sort of a way for me to wander up and down the beach and have conversations and get pictures. I was sort of accepted because I was the age of their grandchildren.
My eyes were wide open. I was really careful with how I shot and what I saw in the frame. I remembered that Winogrand had said “just keep what’s in the frame and concentrate what’s in the viewfinder. Everything else isn’t in the picture. Only what’s in there! There’s four lines, keep yourself in between. Concentrate on what you put in there.” So when I got back to Boston with the pictures, people were sort of startled, friends still tell me. They remember the pictures coming out of the wash and they couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing, but they knew I was doing something. For me that’s the beginning, spring of 1974.”
And as Godlis started to find his own way, it coincided with with an explosion of the scene that keeps on giving. It was New York City where he felt you had to be if you wanted to really practice street photography, maybe because of its aesthetic nature, being all grids and sharp edges. Yet maybe it was really because everyone was coming to New York to become something else, or someone else, or even to leave something behind. In other words, the city is stacked with character actors, people just trying to make it in the Big Apple, wearing their hearts on their sleeves and leaving their personas all over those streets.
“So at the very end of ‘75 I came to New York and was knocking on doors looking for work, still shooting street. And then I landed at CBGB’s somewhere in there. By the summer I had work and I was looking for a place to hang out so I went down to CBGB’s. By that point the Brassaï book, The Secret Paris of the 30’s, had come out. And you know, any new photo book was just like succeden. Brassaï linked me in with my night pictures of CBGB’s because I thought “I can shoot like that.” I saw those pictures as street pictures at night. And that’s what I can do. I can be a street photographer at CBGB’s at night. Cause I’m not really a rock ‘n’ roll photographer; I didn’t want to be Annie Leibovitz. There are people that wanted to be that. And I love music and rock ‘n’ roll music, but at this point I was a photographer, and if there’s any definition, any clear category of photographer that I was in, it was street photography. Which isn’t the clearest category.
The same way punk music isn’t the clearest category. Look at Blondie, at Patti Smith. Is Blondie like the Ramones? Is Blondie like the Talking Heads? There are all different bands under the guise of being called punk bands. It’s a good catch phrase. And street photography, I think, is as good of an explanation that you can come up with for what I do and what I love. Winogrand does that thing where he says, “Everything is landscape. Everything is still life. Every photograph is a still life.” Right? Because people come up with these categories. Winogrand’s street pictures were still life because you’re stopping the frame, you’re stopping time. And so street photography was as close to the grittiness of what I did. But I took some time off to do night street photography between ‘76 and ‘79. I still shot, but I wasn’t out in the daytime walking the streets because I was intensely awake all night shooting stuff and then working during the day and there’s only so much time during the day, right? So then by ‘79, I knew I was done. I wasn’t done going out at night, but I was done with what had become a three year project of shooting at CBGB’s.
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen sort of spun punk out of the mainstream and all of a sudden it was New Wave. MTV was on the horizon. And publicists were on the horizon. Everything that had been easy and cool and underground started to become the modern era of publicists making sure that you were only able to photograph the first three songs of a set. And I was like, “I don’t want to do this. I gotta get back to what I really do, which is street photography.” And I was confused. So I took a seminar with Garry Winogrand, this was ‘79. It was two weekends. Two days each of the two weekends. I was kind of lost in terms of like, what is good about my street photography? I had gotten to a certain point and kind of put it aside. So I pulled out all these boxes of pictures I printed. And I was looking for some guidance, and he gave me guidance.
I had so much stuff! That was my problem! So I pulled it out, and I just remember other people would put like ten pictures down, or twenty pictures down. And they’d push him to like you know, if he wouldn’t look at a certain picture they’d go, “well what about this one?” And he’d go, “It doesn’t make it!” And they’d want further explanation, but there was no further explanation! Just go take another picture. And I so totally understand that when I’m editing and I look at the picture and I think, “I so wanted this picture to be really good.” And when I would print it, it had the person I wanted in the picture, they were in the place I wanted, but I can hear that [Winogrand] echo going “it just doesn’t make it.”
You have to be really strict on yourself if you want to have good pictures. You have to know which ones are your good pictures. And so he whittled it down. The funny thing is I’m not good at taking notes. So he whittled it down to 9, maybe 15 pictures and said, “These are the good ones.” Then from 15 of those he picked 2. And I don’t even remember what he said, but these somehow were the ones he wanted to point out to me. On the back of the photographs, I went home and I rubber-stamped once on the back of the 15 and then I put 2 of the same rubber-stamp on the back of the 2.
And now that I’m going through my street stuff for the first time in years, I’m literally digging back to the negatives themselves, to the contact sheets, to the prints I made back then. And even when I’m rescanning here and I look at the back of one of them and I go like “oh that was one of the ones he liked.” And I didn’t even remember. There was one that I’ve been posting because I thought, “well somebody might like that.” I’m not sure it even got the greatest reaction on Instagram, but it was definitely one of the ones that Winogrand picked out. There’s still that touchstone for me that’s tangible.
Winogrand gave me the guidance to shoot street again and I literally was on fire. I was on fire for a good number of years for sure, let’s say ’79-’84 was another burst of creativity for me. But as the ‘80’s were coming on, there weren’t galleries showing that work. There was a new wave of photography that was more conceptual—Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons—and street photography had played out its time period. So there was no place for me to go with my street photographs. Some galleries would show them, but there wasn’t really an outlet. I was shooting them, but it was like shooting in the wind.
But, you know, you sometimes have to wait. You shoot pictures and you know, you have to live along with your photographs, you have to out live them to some degree. Nobody told me that in photo school, but I figured it out. So, the punk pictures started to get old and people didn’t want to look at those in the early ‘80’s. And the street photographs, which I was shooting like mad, I had no place to go with them, but you continue on! Just because there’s not a place to sell something that you think is a good idea, doesn’t mean to stop doing it!
By the end of the ‘80’s, people wanted the punk pictures again. The street took a little bit longer. It’s a little disappointing to not have an outlet, but the digital age changed everything, because that was a whole other thing. I had a midlife photography crisis, which came right around when digital cameras were coming out and became affordable. So I went to a therapist and I was like, “I’ve got so many negatives. The more you shoot the more you have.” And the therapist says, “You’re telling me, David, that you have a lot of negatives, you’re trying to process a lot of stuff and you’re having a difficult time processing? You don’t want to go into a dark room!” It was therapist speak, but it was so appropriate! I thought, how do you keep shooting if no one is looking? At some point what do you do? You have all these things, you keep going to the dark room, then the digital camera comes along. And it’s like, oh great, I don’t have to go into the dark room AND I can keep shooting!” So as a new generation of iPhone wielding photography jockeys are born every minute, the true masters express a lifetime of stealing scenes, of stopping time and celebrating our human condition. Yeah, photographers are pretty cool.
Order your copy of History Is Made At Night featuring 119 photographs in a fine art duotone monograph edition; including photographs from GODLIS' nights at CBGB's between 1976 and 1979, when Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, and Televsion ruled New York City's Bowery with an introduction written by Jim Jarmusch.
all images courtesy of GODLIS