There were six or seven photographers present at the birth of punk, but there will only ever be one Godlis. That's right – I shit you not – we're talking about a punk photographer whose surname is actually Godlis. Many of those other photographers who were lucky or smart enough to have been shooting on the Bowery in the early 1970s favoured the bright flash and sharp focus championed by music journals of the day, but David Godlis, newly arrived from Boston in 1976, began shooting in a romantic and painterly style using long exposures in available light. Drawing on his hero Brassaï’s nuanced scenes of Paris nightlife in the 30s, Godlis captured early shows by Blondie, Television, the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Suicide, Talking Heads, Dead Boys, Patti Smith, and more at their now legendary incubator, CBGB.
Richard Hell, Bowery, 1977
Although objectively beautiful and unquestionably his own, Godlis’s style of photographing was deemed “unprintable” by newspaper and magazine editors of the day. For this reason, there has never been a comprehensive book of his photographs of early punk rock, despite the now widespread popularity of his subjects.
I met Godlis last year through Henry Horenstein, the venerated Boston photographer who captured the last days of old-time country music in his series Honky Tonk. Henry knew that besides being photo editor of VICE, I self-publish a journal of emerging photography called MATTE, so he suggested Godlis and I meet. He may not have known that part of my inspiration for MATTE was John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil’s seminal Punk magazine, the DIY startup that gave the movement its name. Godlis had been thinking of publishing a book for years, and I had been looking to start a photography-book publishing imprint, so we agreed to team up on the project. We decided crowdfunding was the only way to make it happen, and within the first 48 hours we raised over $20,000 on Kickstarter for MATTE Editions’ first book, tentatively titled History Is Made at Night. I talked to Godlis about the combination of fate and intuition that made these historic photos possible.
VICE: After almost four decades, there has been an incredible response to the pictures becoming a book.
Godlis: I’m kind of stunned to tell you the truth. I was prepared for nobody to do anything.
To spread the word, it seems like you reached out to a lot of the people who are in the pictures – people from the punk scene back then.
Since I went on Facebook and got used to what I could do on it, I started to realise it was, like, hanging out with all the people I used to hang out with at the bar at CBGB's, except we’re all home, online, talking to each other. I realised that’s where all my friends from that time are now. They pay attention to the pictures I post, and I value their feedback. So those are the people I reached out to, and they jumped right on.
Patti Smith, Bowery, 1976
Some of the stories that will accompany the pictures in the book will come from these people too, right?
Every time I post a picture, people remember things about that picture that I don’t even remember. Even my Patti Smith picture, we’re still debating who the person in the background is, on the left side of the photo. People just have great stories, and we’ll mix those in.
Joey Ramone, St. Mark's Place, 1981
This is your first book, right?
Yeah, I’ve been in a lot of other books and documentaries, but I’ve never had my own solo book, let’s say. And so this was always planned to be a book. It was the way I shot it. But as time has passed over the years, things seem to be perfect to set it up this way, to use crowdfunding to make the book. It’s very much like what we were doing at CBGB back in the day. It’s DIY. This is a DIY way of putting together a book about a scene that was really DIY. So it feels like this is the way it should happen. Seems to fit perfectly.
Alex Chilton, Bowery, 1977
You were trying to make pictures like the French photographer Brassaï, correct?
The last edition of his The Secret Paris of the 30s had come out in 1976, and I was charmed by it. At the same time I was hanging out at CBGB, and the two kind of conflated. So I did night street photos on the Bowery.
You were using long exposures, and some people have called your pictures blurry.
Well, I wasn’t using a flash. People were used to glossy photos shot with a flash, if it was a picture of a rock scene. Sometimes when I took people's picture, they’d say, “Hey, your flash didn’t go off.” Some art photographers were doing things like me, but music photographers were not. So every time I went to get it published, editors would say, “That won’t print.” Some of my pictures would get printed on newsprint by the New Musical Express in England, and they looked just fine there. But most New York editors I brought my work to turned me down. Nobody cared about punk when I was shooting that in America. It wasn’t until a year later, when the Sex Pistols hit. It took until the Sex Pistols for people to care.
Klaus Nomi, Jim Jarmusch, Christopher Parker
Jim Jarmusch is writing the foreword to the book.
Yes, Jim is an old friend, and a subject. I have a great picture of him outside CBGB. I knew him when he was a film student at NYU. We shared a subject, Christopher Parker, who was in his first film, Permanent Vacation. He’s exactly who I’ve always wanted to write the foreword for my book, because he knew the scene.
Talking Heads, CBGB, 1977
How did you end up in that scene?
I saw a sparse, black-and-white ad in the back of the Village Voice with strange band names. What kind of band calls themselves Television? I’d seen a couple of issues of Punk magazine that had pictures of what was going on at CBGB. And I walked in and heard Television, and immediately I thought, OK, all these people have the same Velvet Underground album as me. The people were fun to hang around. Punk wasn’t considered to be threatening yet, until the Sex Pistols. Safety pins hadn’t happened yet. We were 25 to 26 years old, and there was hardly room to break into the rock 'n' roll business, so we had to find a place where we could make room and create a scene. That’s what people did down there.
If a record company won’t sign you, put out your own 45. Start putting posters up. Play in a place nobody’s willing to play down on the Bowery. I saw the Ramones, and it was over. OK, this is where I’m hanging out. Blondie? No-brainer!
Blondie, CBGB, 1977
There was nothing you could define it by, because everybody was different. "Punk" came along with Punk magazine, this fanzine that put its stamp on it. That name kind of felt right for what everybody was doing.
Yeah, that’s DIY too. Those were just three guys from Connecticut who started a magazine because they wanted to hang out.
John Holmstrom was a genius cartoonist who was studying with Harvey Kurtzman, who had done Mad magazine. Everybody loved Mad magazine. It was the first place where you realised adults might be silly. He would create stories out of all the people who were hanging out in the scene.
Dictators, Bowery, 1976
It’s a time and place that is heavily romanticized by younger generations. How do you think the way people look at these pictures has changed?
Well, music moves on, and in the 80s the pictures looked like yesterday's news. Then, when Nirvana hit, people started calling me for pictures. It was music that influenced people like Kurt Cobain, so it became music history. To some extent, the pictures were shot to look back at. If you’re a photographer, you know you’re a documenter as well as an artist. You’re trying to capture a time period so that when people look back at it, they have these photographs to look at.
Godlis is a New York–based photographer and downtown institution. Follow him on Instagram.