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Capturing CBGB’s Glory Days With Photographer David Godlis

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(Left) Patti Smith, Bowery 1976 by Godlis and (Right) Godlis, Bowery 2016 by Melissa Guerrero
(Left) Patti Smith, Bowery 1976 by Godlis and (Right) Godlis, Bowery 2016 by Melissa Guerrero

In 1976, a young photographer came upon a black haired woman outside a club on the Bowery. In mid-conversation, he stopped and asked for a photograph. With barely a second to spare and the street lamp his only source of light, David Godlis produced a grainy black and white image of a young Patti Smith, her hand on her cheek in a deadpan expression. She would become one of his many muses at the legendary CBGBs music club.

Godlis, originally from New York, moved to Boston to study photography. He wanted to be a street photographer, and later came back to the city to document the street scene and begin his post-grad job search. In the process, he stumbled upon an ad on the Village Voice about a club downtown featuring oddly named bands like Blondie, Television, and the Ramones. On his first visit, he saw a Velvet Underground album on the wall and decided that this was the place to be. A few weeks later, he began photographing the club, just as it was, without the aid of a flash, for three straight years. Some forty years later, the images have been immortalized in his new self-published book, History Made at Night.

Godlis documented the punk rock club — from the bartenders to the bathroom, to teenage musicians hanging out along the Bowery — as he saw it. I recently spoke with the photographer to discuss his kickstarter-funded book, his adventures on the street and how he stumbled upon the holy grail of music venues in the punk rock scene.

Why did you decide to be the man behind the lens?

I was always looking for something to do artistically. I tried to be a writer, I was okay at it but the people I knew who were doing it were better than me. When I got my first camera in 1970, a Pentac Spotmatic, and started taking pictures of my friends, I became fascinated with photography… You take to something and you say, “Okay, this is my thing.” People pick up a guitar and say that’s their thing. For me, the camera was my guitar.

Blondie by Godlis
Blondie by Godlis

What was it like living in the punk rock scene at that time? 

CBGBs was the one [club] I felt really comfortable in from the minute I walked in…I immediately recognized that they and everybody in the club that night were my kind of people. And punk rock wasn’t defined yet. There wasn’t a definition for people who listen to the The Velvet Underground, MC5, or people who liked Iggy Pop.  They were over there trying to make something out of nothing because nobody was listening, nobody cared about it that much.

I can only imagine what it was like to be there when they were starting…

I remember telling myself, if you run into one of these scenes, keep your eyes open. I didn’t go looking for the scene, I don’t think, but I recognized it the minute I walked into CBGBs. You knew something was happening, you could just feel it. I was a photographer that photographed things on the street during the day but I thought maybe I should be photographing this, like it was street photography, except doing it at night… But they were two worlds that don’t mix that often. I was the guy that was equally comfortable in both worlds.

Your pictures capture people just the way they are at that moment in time. When we see any celebrity, musician or cultural figure, we forget that they’re real people that do boring things.

That’s also why I wanted to photograph everybody. To me it felt that…there wasn’t that separation where you’re watching Blondie, or idolizing Blondie, because Blondie was sitting down at the bar in between sets, hanging out, they weren’t disappearing into a limo somewhere. My way of doing photography is to make things look the way they look, shooting with no flash.

How did you transition from outsider looking in to CBGBs house photographer?

Hilly Kristal was the one. He let me photograph whatever I wanted to photograph.  There was another club, The Bottom Line, if I went there I had to get all kinds of okays to shoot. When I went into CBGBs, Hilly let me shoot anything, anytime, no quid pro quo.  I would come in with a box of pictures and show them to everybody. I was seeing the same people every night and at the same time I was learning how to do it. I moved through the club organically until everybody pretty much knew [what I was doing].

It’s interesting that you decided to self-publish. Where did the Kickstarter idea originate from?

A collector that bought some of my pictures wanted to meet me and he suggested a Kickstarter campaign. I knew about Kickstarter; I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that a book could be done in this way. It felt a little bit scary but the it felt right to do it. It gave me a lot of freedom to [edit] the book in a way that I wanted to put it together. It really worked out.

Ramones by Godlis
Ramones by Godlis

Why did you decide to publish a book on your CBGBs photographs and not, for instance, your street photography in New York, or in Miami, or Boston?

Those are all books I want to do. Aside from the fact that this is an easier sell, these pictures mean a lot to me and I wanted to get this book out to the world first. It’s taken me, what, 40 years? It’s ridiculous. [Eventually] I’ll get on with my street books. Or a more expanded version of this book.

A favorite memory of an image that you distinctly remember the moment you took it?

It has to be the Patti Smith shot.  I knew the light was perfect because she was standing at a spot I knew well. It was like my studio out there, you know? She was having a conversation, I tapped her on the shoulder and she just put her hand up. I remember thinking…if I don’t fuck this up, this is going to be a great shot. But I didn’t know until I developed the film, and one out of two was a great shot.

Favored music venues in NYC now?

I don’t go out as much but I go to places that people play. But I’m not like a regular…the only place that I would say I’m a regular would be the Bowery Electric, because a lot of the people I know still play there. That’s the place.

Upcoming projects?

I usually shoot what I like to do or things that I think are interesting. For book projects, I want to do the street photography book. Either a book of street photographs, not exclusively in New York City, or my pictures of Miami Beach in 1974. I have a funny feeling that I might go with the Miami ‘74. Those pictures were, in a way, are as close to me as my CBGB pictures. That’s when I really knew, from that point on, I was going to be a photographer.

Image by Melissa Guerrero
Image by Melissa Guerrero
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