Photographer David Godlis is one of the foremost chroniclers of downtown NYC in the 1970s. His unique, flashless nighttime black-and-white shots of the punk scene’s fringes and environs are now part of our collective history. In his handsome new book, Godlis Streets, with an introduction by kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch, he turns his camera on the rest of the city, day and night, and captures a piece of its soul. Eric Davidson caught up with Godlis for PKM.
All photos © courtesy Godlis/Reel Art Press
A friendly, constant eye on the Lower East Side gallery-hopping scene to this day, David Godlis first gained notoriety as the best snapshooter of the mid-1970s CBGB’s scene. After developing his trade in Boston, he brought a newfound confidence to the high insecurity of living on the Lower East Side back then. While the mainstream’s view of New York City at that point was “drop dead,” Godlis saw the buzzing energy and low-rent freedoms of that punk scene that would, in its own unintended way, bring NYC back from the abyss. To another kind of abyss, sure, but living in New York is living in those grey areas where nothing is sure.
You can see and savor that unique, excited, grey-area-curiosity for whatever might come around any NYC corner throughout Godlis Streets (Reel Art Press), his amazing new book of black and white photographs. Having thankfully taken stock of his huge cache of photographs, and cornered his innate modesty, Godlis has been on a mission to properly document his work. The drips and drabs of his CBGB pictures over the years led to his essential 2016 book, History is Made at Night. Having thus secured his place as one of the foremost chroniclers of that era, this beautiful new book of mostly unseen photographs further proves Godlis’ talents were most definitely not just fate’s dropping him on the Bowery in 1975.
History is Made at Night exposed his gift for flash-less shots that was perfect for capturing the shadow world of CBGB’s subversive presence. Not to mention his perfect framing of some of the most photogenic coolies who ever walked the earth. And now, in Godlis Streets, he emerges into Manhattan when the streetlamps are off. To this day, he spends most of his time shuffling around the City photographing intriguing glimpses instagram.com/godlis, and this book shows his nascent days of such. As opposed to the gorgeously grimy denizens of the CBGB scene, once Godlis shakes off the hangover and hits the streets midday, he aims towards the fleeting micro-tales of everyday passersby. Gargantuan ‘70s lapels cross paths with ‘80s kitschy eyewear, as we see NYC shifting from seemingly more lurid times to… frazzled old Wall Street guys late for work? A broken-armed Uncle Sam next to a Reagan poster? Embarrassed nuns? Immodest heps? Cops patrolling dilapidated porno joints? All unknowingly framed by NYC’s constant rotation of omniscient advertisements, graffiti, and other curious souls. It’s true Godlis has a knack for the right place/right time, but this new book further shows what great composition he employs while in search of New York City’s endless juxtapositions.
From the very first shot here – a little kid in a droopy policeman’s costume, smartass smirk, flipping the bird – Godlis expresses the way NYC is always far more self-effacing than rude. Godlis no doubt has had his run-ins with burly police officers, but chooses to make them and the other outsider-assumed horrors of NYC seem kindred, and always moving forward. Hardly anyone in this book is stuck in stone. Most are walking, or look like they’re on the verge of it. And that means for all the hanging delights of NYC, we often miss them. In one photo, two people sit tired in a subway car, with a Picasso museum show poster and people flashing by outside the window. There is so much great art in NYC that sits waiting for you, but we often let it pass by. And then there is great art that is sitting right in front of you all the time.
In the last 20 years, New York City’s unwavering momentum has moved exponentially harder and faster, the monied construction sprawl especially becoming oppressively voracious and aimless. I’d challenge even Godlis to find anything accidentally beautiful about Long Island City (well, the new waterfront parks are nice). But run into him today (well, pre-COVID) and his inquisitive and positive style remains, as does his ever-present camera. Hell, even he has moved forward a bit, utilizing digital cameras and color even, and here’s hoping there’s another book from that. But for now, we meet with Godlis to head back to the black and white Streets.
PKM: The title – Godlis Streets – of course NYC is often painted as “godless” by outsiders. And you have a few nuns and porn palaces darting around this book. Am I jumping right into the obvious titular theme?
David Godlis: Well with a name like Godlis, it’s hard to avoid. But you can’t make this stuff up. I just photograph it.
PKM: One of the first shots is of that amazing St. Marks Cinema marquee, with Stanger Than Paradise on it. Did you see it there?
David Godlis: Oh I’m sure I saw it at the St. Marks Cinema. I was living right around the corner. But, actually, I think the first time I saw it was at Danceteria, where Jarmusch showed only the first third of the movie. He hadn’t completed the rest of the film. I have a picture of him threading the projector there.
PKM: What did you think of this Akron guy’s vision of NYC?
David Godlis: I always felt a kinship with Jim; we had a similar sensibility. I met him in 1977. He was going to NYU Film School with a friend of mine. We met at that friend’s apartment where I was staying until I got my own apartment. The film school students used to hang there. My box of CBGB pictures was already there, and I’m sure I showed it to Jim. I also knew him from CBGB, where I have pictures of Jim and Christopher Parker, who was the actor in Jim’s first film, Permanent Vacation. He was already working on that when I shot that picture in 1978. I think I knew Chris before I knew Jim. So our interests were already aligned. So yes, I’m a forever fan. That’s why I asked Jim to write the intro to History Is Made At Night, which he was so gracious to do.
PKM: Is there any photo in this book of someone who was a transplant or tourist, who you maybe got into a conversation with about why they came here?
David Godlis: On the street, I’m very much a grab and go photographer, so I don’t really get to know too much about the people in my street photographs. But the picture of the couple at the Veselka is one I do know more about. I shot it in 1982. A couple of years later I got a letter from England, from the girl in the photo, who asked me for a copy. She made a cool little stick figure drawing to ID the photo, which she had seen in a gallery. Said she and her boyfriend “were having a massive row.” I cherish this letter as a relic of pre-internet times, and the actual work she had to do to find me. I very recently looked her up on the internet to tell her she’s in this book – and she’s a film director, won a Guggenheim grant, and teaches at SVA in the city now!
If I got into chats with everyone I photographed, I’d never get anything done. Street shooting for me is a very solitary process. I walk and shoot pretty much on my own. Even walking down the street with another person while I’m shooting makes it difficult to focus on the task at hand. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to people, but I take a lot of pictures. And who’s really got time for me anyway? New York is a busy place.
PKM: Yeah. I noticed in contrast to the standing around shots of the cool CBGB stars, the subjects in Godlis Streets are often moving, headed somewhere, having to get to a job or whatever. It’s kind of funny to think the regular Joes were more manic than the punks sometimes.
David Godlis: Hey, everyone’s busy on the streets of the city doing something. And my something was to walk among them and take photographs. I was probably a bit more relaxed at night after my day job, even though the music was manic at times.
PKM: Luc Sante mentions in the foreword that you seem to shoot more older people on the street in the day than the younger set at night at CBGB. Was that somewhat conscious at the time – exposing the blatant differences between late night and midday NYC?
David Godlis: Luc’s got a great piece in his new book – Maybe The People Would Be The Times – which gives you a really good feel for what the atmosphere around 1970’s NYC and its music scene was really like. He’s basically saying that when you’re young, in the midst of it, you don’t really see things any way at all. You just see and do. And then, all of a sudden, the time has passed, it’s all over, and you’re not young anymore. I was just shooting what was out there on the streets. I wasn’t exposing anything except film.
PKM: While you’re mostly known for your CBGB’s pix, some of these in the new book were shot in Boston, before you even moved to NYC. So how do you think your street photography informed your art when you settled into that more confined Bowery scene for a while?
David Godlis: When I started photography in Boston, I always saw myself as a street photographer, a guy with a camera walking around photographing what he saw. I continued doing that when I moved to New York City to look for work. And when I eventually started hanging out at CBGB, I photographed that scene more like a street photographer than a rock photographer. I wasn’t shooting to sell pictures, I was just hanging out with my eyes wide open. I wanted to be Brassai, not Annie Leibovitz. So what you see is what you get.
When you’re young, in the midst of it, you don’t really see things any way at all. You just see and do. And then, all of a sudden, the time has passed, it’s all over, and you’re not young anymore.
PKM: It always amazes me to think that – as you’ve told me and I’ve learned elsewhere – photography was still not seen as a serious art form into the early 1970s. What convinced you it was?
David Godlis: Well, photography was always cool. Never mind the galleries. They’ll come around. The thing I ran into was people not taking my pictures of the punk scene seriously. Even though the punk scene was an art project in itself. Remember, it was Andy Warhol who gave the Velvet Underground credibility. For me, coming out of art photography school in the ‘70s, photographs of musicians weren’t considered “serious.” Even by the people I went to school with. When I went back to Boston and showed them my pictures, played them 45’s by Television and Patti Smith, they thought I was taking pictures of bad musicians! So you just shake your head and carry on. In another couple of years, everyone got it. Even the galleries.
PKM: Ha, yup! Whenever I see street photography from pre-cell phones, I just cannot help but believe that we are seeing certain faces and reactions we’ll never see again. The whole moral question of, “Did he ask the person if he could take that?” is moot at this point. Did they get pissed at the photographer? Did he have to run away? Or was the person flattered, etc. – all questions that have much less weight when everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket now, expecting pictures to be taken. Or, am I wrong? Do people still get taken aback when you approach them these days?
David Godlis: Let’s just say I have a strategy for blending in. I’m not sure people even recognize that I’m taking a picture. I shoot quick, and because I put my eye up to the viewfinder, rather than looking at a screen, I tend to go unnoticed. Back in the analog days, when you paid for film, most people wouldn’t think you’d waste your money taking pictures of them. What for? In any case, if you think too much about what people’s reaction might be, you’ll never take a picture.
I did get punched one day for taking a picture. I was actually looking for work that day, knocking on photographers’ doors in the Flatiron district. I was shooting in between interviews. I took a shot of a guy sitting outside a building. He walked over to me, and before I knew it, he punched me. Then he said I couldn’t take his picture without permission and was going to call the cops. So I told him to do that, because I wanted to be sure of the law anyway. I was pretty sure walking on the street you were in public domain. The cops came, heard his story, and told him he had just assaulted me, and if he didn’t apologize, I was going to press charges – that was their idea to scare him. He apologized, and I found out what I needed to know. He sure had huge hands. But it wasn’t even that good of a picture.
There are advantages to everyone having to just stop. That never happens. Never. I am quite sure some really amazing stuff will come out of it, and I for one plan on being around to see it. Just mask up and hang in there!
PKM: You mention in the book that when you started out, unlike Diane Arbus, “I didn’t know any circus freaks.” So I guess you sort of found other sorts of freaks to shoot. But I have to imagine you’ve gone down to shoot the Freak Show at Coney Island.
David Godlis: Everyone loves Coney Island, especially photographers and punks. In 1976, my friend, who’d just read a book on the history of Coney Island, took me to the Coney Island Wax Museum. He wanted to meet the lady who ran it. It had been around forever. He’d read all about her life in Coney in the 1930’s. So I took pictures while he asked her questions. Diane Arbus did pictures in the same place.
I’ll tell you a funny story. Later in the ‘90s, I shot some pictures of the Coney Island Sideshow for an outlet called Pseudo. They had an office on Broadway and Houston where I brought the 8×10 prints from the shoot. There were a bunch of kids sitting at computers. I still had a dial up modem at home, and a few days later, I went to a website and my pictures were there. I could barely conceive how they’d gone from that office in Houston Street, up to the web, and down onto my computer. That was the beginning of the future for me. I’ll never forget that experience.
PKM: Have you spent much time in or shot much in the Hassid community? There are a few Hassids in Godlis Streets.
David Godlis: The only Hassid community I’ve spent time with is in the New York camera stores they run, like B&H and Adorama. I love photographing Hassids because they are so black and white. And as long as they’re selling me my cameras, they really can’t complain about me taking their pictures. What, are they gonna turn into Hassid Vicious? They kind of remind me of Mad magazine’s “Spy Vs. Spy” comic strip.
PKM: The Black Art/American Art photo – be honest – did you find it that way, or set it up after flipping through the photos?
David Godlis: Oh, I couldn’t have made that one up. Of course it was just like that. In the outtake it’s “Black Art, American Art, and Nudes.” I just left out Nudes.
PKM: You seem to not mind if you’re captured in reflection sometimes. Obviously that works for some photos, but do you try to avoid that? I assume it’s hard in city shooting?
David Godlis: Street shooting, you’re either avoiding or including either your reflection or your shadow. Lee Friedlander, one of my favorite photographers, has solved that problem and pointed the way for the rest of us by including his shadows and reflections in his brilliant book, Self Portrait. I love including shadows, especially when my shadow is having a good hair day.
PKM: What’s a favorite place of yours found in this book that is now gone, and one that is still around?
David Godlis: Now gone would be St. Marks Cinema and the old Times Square. Still around would be Fenway Park and the Veselka.
PKM: What is in place of the St. Marks Cinema today?
David Godlis: For one brief shining moment it was the Gap. The side of the building was a big place for band postering. You can see it in my shot of the Ramones on St. Marks Place from 1981. The building is still there, but the interior of the theater is now apartments. And where the theater entrance was is an AT&T store.
PKM: You mention coffee in your foreword, and you recently told me that the two coffee shops where we met for our last interview are closed. Of course, it’s not just the ubiquitous corporate changes that have swept thought the City in the last 20 years, it’s COVID-19 now, too. We are familiar with what the monied development has wrought on the flavor of the City, but what do you think the effects of the virus might lead to – negative and positive? I will assume you are not one of those saying, “Oh, New York is going to die!”
David Godlis: Tomorrow never knows, as John Lennon said. The city’s not going to disappear; it’s just been put on pause for a while. As unwanted as that is, things are still going on underneath the surface. Everyone’s got ideas brewing, and as soon as it’s safe to congregate, we’ll all be ready to burst out again. Meanwhile, there are advantages to everyone having to just stop. That never happens. Never. I am quite sure some really amazing stuff will come out of it, and I for one plan on being around to see it. Just mask up and hang in there!
PKM: Is there a photo in this book that might’ve been taken the same day as one in History is Made at Night? Or maybe one that was taken the day after a show? Or, did you avoid shooting the day after a late night out?
David Godlis: You know I just checked and the Rocky Lady street shot (p. 44-45) was the day after the Punk Magazine Benefit show at CBGB, where the Patti Smith, Blondie, and Suicide live shots are from in History Is Made At Night.
There are two shots in the book though that were taken back to back, on consecutive frames of film, which is very odd – the whistling guy, (p. 58-59) and the magazine girl (p. 22-23). It would be rare to even have two great street shots that make the final edit from the same roll of film. That’s just the nature of the game – you shoot a lot. Consider that in Robert Frank’s The Americans there are only two pictures out of 80 in that book that were shot on the same roll of film. And those weren’t back to back. That’s like hitting the lottery.
PKM: Did you ever run into someone you saw from the night before at some club – just because I imagine most of them were home sleeping it off.
David Godlis: The one I remember most, because I took a photo of it, was Mirielle Cervenka, Exene’s sister, who was dating the bass player from Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Gordon Stevenson. I had already shot their picture. I saw her on the subway one morning, and her look vs. everyone else on the train was so stark that I shot a picture, despite both our hangovers. Oh also, one lunch hour, sitting on Sixth Avenue near my job at 46th Street, Debbie and Chris from Blondie came walking up the avenue. No one noticed them at all – because it was uptown, which wasn’t yet aware of downtown. But I put down my sandwich, got up, and did a street photo of them coming up Sixth Avenue. Always carry your camera was my motto – day or night. You just never know. If you don’t have it, you’ll definitely see something.