Photo: Bowery View Summer, 1977.
“There are no secrets that time does not reveal,” Jean Racine wrote. With the benefit of hindsight, it has become evident that punks are true embodiment of the counterculture movement. They never sold out and they never said die. They just keep on keeping on, D.I.Y.
Photographer David Godlis arrived on the New York scene in 1976, camera in hand, carrying as much film as he could reasonably hold in the pockets of his black jeans without looking indiscreet. He usually shot without a flash, using the techniques of masters like Brassai, who had famously photographed Paris at night forty years prior and inspired Godlis’s masterful eye.
A photographer’s photographer, Godlis studied the greats and thought about how to employ the genius of legends like Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Weegee to the small but vital scene that was taking hold in the talents including Patti Smith, Richard Hell, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie, among countless others that he photographed almost every night through 1979.
Now, after a forty-year wait, Godlis has emerged victorious with History is Made at Night, a sumptuous self-published monograph (because who can do it better than you?). A selection of the photographs is currently on view at agnès b. galerie, New York, now through the end of October 2016.
“It’s been a wild ride!” Godlis remarks and this is undoubtedly true. He went into the project knowing it would be a book, approaching it as both author and photographer. He would only take two or three shots of any scene, making due with what technology allowed (as well as the cut of those jeans). The very idea of carrying a camera bag was loathsome. He made himself inconspicuous and his photographs reflect this. Godlis is here, there, everywhere—yet invisible.
Working without a flash, he could shoot without being seen. He did bring a flash once, remembering his attitude was: “Tonight, I’m doing everything the opposite, like Bizarro Superman.” He used the flash to the most garish effect, thinking, “Let’s have an ugly contest. That’s what people do.” Stiv Bators won. He truly understood the beauty of the grotesque and played it to the hilt.
By being discreet, Godlis earned the trust of his subjects, who were not mere subjects but friends, colleagues, and collaborators giving birth to a style that would change the world. It came from a time and a place unlike and before or since. New York City in the 1970s had been going through a dark period of despair as the federal government abandoned it, leaving it to complete and total disrepair. But something curious happened: out of abject poverty came a period creativity that was revolutionary to its core.
In a time decades our own, before corporate culture washed the streets clean, before squares came from all corners of the nation to gentrify the scene, people did whatever they wanted to do, on their own terms. Like Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” and her words were fully embodied by this crop of kids who rejected all that the hippies had left in their wake. Rock music had become a bloated affair, so impressed with itself and its earning power that it no longer spoke to the common wo/man. Punk was like a brushfire that swept the forest clean of overgrowth, taking music back to its essence and reclaiming the rebellious spirit that hippies had given up in exchange for post-collegiate jobs and white picket fences.
But punk was not nihilism; that’s far too reductive a perspective to take. Godlis observes, “It occurred to me recently that as much as punk is ‘three chords, anyone can do it, just pick up an instrument,’ I think everyone was thinking long term. They were thinking in terms of history. But we didn’t treat it as history when it was happening.”
Because you can’t quite know what will come next. It would be impossible to imagine that CBGB would close and in its place, a John Varvatos store would appear, or that the Bowery would become a nouveau riche enclave. The Bowery was New York’s Skid Row, dating back to the nineteenth century when it lead down to Five Points, as chronicled in Gangs of New York. It was the home of the down and out, where only the strongest could survive. It was the perfect setting for the emergence of punk, once upon a time.
“History has a weird way of working,” Godlis observes. “People play around with it to their advantage, but we will all disappear. History gets written closer to the way it was without anyone to manipulate it.”
This explains why 2016 is the year. Four decades in the making, History is Made at Night is more vital and significant than ever before. It speaks across generations, to the people who were there and the people who missed it. It stands for facts and the necessity of context. This is not the fictionalized “history” that so many corporate minds are keen to produce. This is not a myth serving an ulterior motive. This is what happened. This is the truth.
Godlis will be signing copies of History is Made at Night during the NY Art Book Fair on Saturday, September 17, 2016, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. at Matte Editions, booth N57.
All photos: ©Godlis, courtesy of agnès b. galerie, New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.