MASTERS OF STREET
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. 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?”
Though Godlis may not have been quite sure what “this” was exactly. Not yet, at least. “I started school in the fall of ‘73 and like mosts students I was already seeing myself in the line of Diane Arbus 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. 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 Garry 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 them. 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.”
But 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.
And as Godlis started to find his own way, it coincided with with an explosion of the scene that keeps on giving. “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 the Bowery. By that point the Brassaïbook, The Secret Paris of the 30’s, had come out. So 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.”
But as he points out, “It's in the same way punk in music isn’t the clearest category. Look at Blondie, or at Patti Smith. Is the sound of 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."
"Garry 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 he's stopping the frame, he's stopping time.” 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. Check out our definitive look at the master's work in this week's feature story FOR THE LOVE OF GODLIS.
All images courtesy of GODLIS
Certainly no fictional photographer had a cooler vibe and legacy than Thomas, the protagonist in Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult classic Blow Up. Played by David Hemmings and based on the real life of photographer/socialite David Bailey (who incidentally turned down the part of playing himself), Thomas was the epitome of a hip fashion photographer in 1960’s swinging London, a star among the characters in the glossy world of fashion magazines. And unlike many photographers today, Thomas was extremely wealthy and lavish, driving his Rolls Royce around the city while young models fawned over him hoping to get their photo taken by the star mod photographer of the time. We guess you could say, as that old adage goes, “men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him.” Or something like that.
However, despite all the accolades and praise for his work, Thomas eventually grew bored of his commercial photography and begins taking photos in the oddest of places—outside of fashion shoots and in the real world. He discovers for himself the art of street photography. This was shocking to see at the time, as it certainly might have been in a few edgy galleries, but it certainly wasn't in Vogue, British or otherwise. Why take a picture of a person reading in the park? Who cares about those kids jumping in the puddle! After all, at this time in the ’60’s, and especially in cinema (and outside of New York and other urban hubs), documentary photography was mostly only seen as something used for police work. And street photography was barely ever mentioned as a genre, let alone as an art form.
In the plot, while shooting what would now be considered street photography, Thomas accidentally documents a murder. Chaos ensues. Blow Up went on to influence an entire generation of photographers and brought Antonioni into the English language and earned him a permanent place in The Criterion Collection. It highlighted the importance of documentary and street photography, and alluded to the idea that there could be an actual career in that type of art. Because just like Thomas said, “It’s my job. Some people are bull-fighters. Some people are politicians. I’m a photographer.” Blow Up was Antonioni's gift to every young kid who watches that film for the first time and is inspired to pick up a cool looking camera, though hopefully for more than just the aesthetics, but also for devotion to the practice and discipline of the art of street photography as well.
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.