Godlis - Blondie

Godlis – Blondie

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Godlis began photographing at CBGB’s in 1976. As a refugee of the New York City street photography scene, his work reveals an infatuation with Leica cameras, long handheld exposures, and Brassai’s classic night photographs of the 1930s. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, in the landmark 1981 show “New Wave/New York: at P.S.1, New Museum of Contemporary Art, CBGB 313 Gallery, and Pace MacGill Gallery, all in New York; and at Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, Arles.

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Godlis discusses his work, Blondie, CBGB’s, New York City, 1977, and Patti Smith Outside CBGB’s, Bowery and Bleecker Street, New York City, 1976, selected for publication in Who Shot Rock & Roll by Gail Buckland (Knopf, October 2009, $40).

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What lead you to study photography at Imageworks and what were your aspirations when you first entered the discipline?

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Godlis: Well, seeing Antonioni’s “Blow Up” was probably pretty key to me getting interested in photography. David Hemmings as David Bailey in his darkroom in swinging London, with the club appearance by the Yardbirds—not to mention Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin; that made photography look pretty cool.

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I got my first camera at the end of the summer of 1970. I was living in Boston and immediately began shooting black & white pictures of all my friends. I became fascinated by the cult of the camera itself.  I started educating myself by picking up old Photography Annuals and hanging out looking at photo books at the library. I was clearly obsessed with what this “photography” thing was, so I took a basic course in 1972 to actually get inside a darkroom.

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Right around that time, I took a trip to NYC to the Museum of Modern Art, where I was stunned by the Diane Arbus 1972 exhibition.  For me that was a defining moment, where my fascination with photography crossed paths with the rock aesthetic I had grown up around. Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” was cut from the same cloth as Diane Arbus’ “Jewish Giant with Parents.” So that exhibition, along with the first time I saw Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment” was the turning point for me.

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After that I needed a place to really learn how to learn about the art of photography. Imageworks was where I landed in the fall of 1974. Imageworks was in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the kind of experimental photography school that really flourished in the early 70s—an art school devoted totally to photography—where a group of like-minded kids with cameras showed up to pick up skills and share ideas. Teachers came in from RISD in Providence and SVA in NYC. My first class, my first day—Nan Goldin and Stanley Greene were both beginner photographers in that class—was like jumping into a cold pool. It was all photography all the time, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Imageworks was where that I began to learn how to really look at photographs—Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Brassai, Kertesz, Atget, Weegee. My greatest teacher was Paul Krot from RISD, who invented the Sprint chemicals I still use. He cut through all the crap and made it very clear what was important to know. And there really was a cult of straight “street photography” at Imageworks.  That’s what really interested me, and that’s how I saw myself, in that pre-Post Modern era: the lonely street photographer with camera conquering the world.

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I hung around Imageworks until it imploded and shut down during the recession of 1975, and then packed up my gear and headed to NYC to shoot on the streets of New York and look for work as an assistant.

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NYC, 1976, Abbie Hoffman’s old St. Marks Place apartment!! It couldn’t be more fitting. Gail quotes you as saying, “I wasn’t a rock photographer. I photographed a scene.” What attracted you to the East Village in 1976, and to its underground HQ, CBGB’s?

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When I got to NYC in 1976, I was looking for work as a photographer’s assistant to pay the bills.   Eventually I landed a steady job, and looked for a place to hang out and hear music. There weren’t very many clubs that didn’t have cover bands, and I’d seen that picture of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan that kind of tipped me off to CBGB’s, so I went in there to see what was going on. I had also seen copies of Punk magazine and Rock Scene at a newsstand at Penn Station. The first time I went to CBGB’s I saw Television and figured out pretty quickly that there were some like-minded Velvet Underground fans in this place. I had found my new hangout. It didn’t hurt that I got in for free.

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But I didn’t really go there to photograph, I went there to hear music and meet people. It was late one night at the bar that I had this epiphany that maybe I should be photographing the place. If I could photograph it at night under natural light exactly the way it looked—I had been looking at Brassai’s night pictures of Paris in the 1930s  at the time—that would be something no one else was doing. And if I didn’t do it who would? I didn’t want to be a rock photographer. I didn’t want to be Annie Liebowitz. I wanted to be Brassai!

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As far as St. Marks Place goes, I used to go down there in the 60s when I was a teenager and always loved the block so it wasn’t that far fetched to go looking for an apartment there. It was close to the Bowery and CBGB’s where I was spending all my time, and the rent was cheap. Roberta Bayley lived upstairs in the same building, so we could share darkroom chemicals. What I didn’t expect was that I would end up in Abbie Hoffman’s old apartment. I found that out years later, when we went on rent strike and one of my neighbors told me that Abbie had gone underground from there. It’s always felt like a lot of history passed through that place.

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Your epiphany, to photograph New York at night, and to explore the issues of film, paper, and exposure, are what set apart your work from so many others. Your work with light at night is exciting, can you speak about the different challenges you faces with the conditions of the street and nightclub environments?

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I was committed to shooting by natural light at night—no flash—so I was already painting myself into a corner. But it was my corner and no one else’s. If you use a flash, it’s like turning a light on in a room that’s already lit a certain way and I definitely didn’t want to do that. But I made it work for me. I wanted my pictures to look exactly the way things looked at CBGB’s, at that time and place.

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I was already shooting with a Leica camera, which I could hold steady at slow shutter speeds. But the problem was determining the right combination of shutter speeds, f/stop, and film developing. That took weeks of testing. I was like a mad scientist in the darkroom, trying variations of mixing chemicals to push the Tri-x film until I got enough on the negative to make a good print. Then testing out papers to come up with the right look. It really paid off, in that it gave my pictures a unique look. I didn’t even know what they would look like until I figured it all out. But once I figured it out, I was free to shoot at night indoors, onstage and off, and outdoors with people lit up by the Bowery streetlights.

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I had to shoot at ¼-second exposure handheld, so I had to remind people—drunk people—to hold still. But that worked to my benefit too. What was great was that the prints glowed. They looked great at night, when I showed them to people in the club. The darkroom light was the same as the club lighting. The magazines in America thought they were blurry grainy shots because they didn’t look like flash photos but in England and France they loved them.

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Now for the people who were there in 1976-79, they tell me the pictures look exactly like what they remember of CBGB’s. And for people who weren’t there, the pictures show them what it would have been like to be there. That was what I wanted to do—to show what the present will look like as the past. That’s the essence of my type of photography.

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How did the people on the scene connect to the work you were doing?

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I used to go down to CBGB’s every night with a box of pictures to show people what I was doing. Inevitably I left with fewer pictures than I showed up with—I gave many away. But over time, everyone in the club knew what I was doing and wanted to be part of it. There were no digital backs on the cameras back then. So you had to develop and print the work yourself every day.

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The way the pictures were printed made them look especially good under the club lighting. I remember Bob Gruen telling me one night—I was so impressed that this was the actual Bob Gruen—that he used to do the same thing, bringing pictures down to clubs and showing them to everyone when he started out.  That meant a lot to me, and everyone’s reaction at CBGB’s spurred me on.

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Handsome Dick Manitoba’s finding my stolen wallet and returning it to me at CBGB’s one night in 1976 led me to do that picture of him and his girlfriend Jody in front of CB’s to return the favor. Television called me to do their photograph for the second album, which led to the pictures of Richard Lloyd at in the hospital. Tapping Patti Smith on the shoulder one night outside CBGB’s and asking to take her photograph lit up by the Bowery streetlamps led to one of my most memorable photographs. I remember talking with Alex Chilton in 1977 and being totally impressed by his stories of photographer William Eggleston, whom he’d known in Memphis—which led to us doing the photograph of him where a drop of rain magically landed on the lens.  We really all worked off of each other every night at CBGB’s—just like the bands worked off of their audiences.

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I love your little story about Robert Frank, could you retell it here?

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Well I was such a big fan of Robert Frank since my time at Imageworks and so much of what I was doing at CBGB’s was influenced, both consciously and unconsciously, by him. I knew The Americans and Lines of My Hand inside out. His photograph of the kids with the jukebox from The Americans, I wanted to make that photograph inside CBGB’s. I had seen him speak in 1975 at Wellesley College right after Walker Evans had died, when he showed a reel of the banned Rolling Stones film.

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But now here I was shooting at CBGB’s in 1977 and in walks Robert Frank, right past the front desk. I was stunned. I was the only one there who recognized him. But to me, one of my biggest influences had just walked into the place, where I was shooting pictures totally influenced by him. At that time I didn’t have any idea that he lived around the corner on Bleecker Street! I remember he asked me what was going on here, and he said in his Swiss accent, “It looks like de way people dress here is very important.”

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Then everyone around me wanted to know who is this guy. I said incredulously, “That’s Robert Frank!” Well no one knew who that was. So I said, “Robert Frank, The Americans?” No reaction. “Cocksucker Blues”? Still no reaction. Then “Exile on Main Street?”  Well that was a pretty influential album on the punk scene in 77, so when I said he did the cover for that album, it clicked and people said, “Oh yeah—he’s very cool! What’s his name?”

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Godlis - Debbie Harry

Godlis – Debbie Harry

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