Godlis took up photography in 1972. A year later he began studying at Imageworks Photography in East Cambridge, where he discovered the work of Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Robert Frank. But it wasn’t until he went down to Miami Beach that he found his eye, perhaps due to the fact that he was returning to a pivotal place from his formative years.
In the 1950s, his grandfather retired and moved to Miami Beach, purchased a multi-apartment complex and began renting out units. He kept a few apartments for the family so they would have somewhere to stay for free. Godlis remembers his mother would take him for a visit during the winter and they wouldn’t return to New York until the weather changed. He went every winter as a child until he was in high school. When Godlis returned to Miami Beach in 1974 at the age of 22, it felt like a homecoming. For the first time since he took up photography, he was able to relax and let the pictures happen.
At this time, Miami Beach was largely a Jewish enclave populated by retirees who brought their culture in the form of delis like Wolfie’s and the Rascal House, as well as a dog track on the piers. Godlis milled about, meeting older women who were keen to set him up with their granddaughter or quick to question his motives, asking, “Why are you taking my picture? There’s nothing special about me.”
Godlis intentionally chose to shoot in black and white with a Pentax SLR, creating a body of work that captures a slide of American life that has long since disappeared. Now, more than four decades after they were made, the 12 of the photographs from this pivotal series of work are on view as part of Kitsch and Kulture: Transition in South Florida 1960-1990, a group show on view at The Box Gallery, West Palm Beach, from July 15–August 30, 2017.
“Kitsch” wonderfully describes the style of the times, one that took great delight in the gaudy glamour of the 1970s. Big was in: big cars, big hair, big lapels. Prints and patterns were loud and bold, while colors ran wild. Deep tans were de rigeur, and everyone was always fully dressed, from the hats on their head to the perfectly polished loafers on their feet.
In Godlis’ photos we see an image of the American Dream: get married, work hard, then retire to Florida where you can spend your days lolling about, free to do as you wish. This is the land of eternal sunshine, where the only decisions that need to be made involve pastrami or corned beef on rye.
In returning to the place of his youth, Godlis was liberated to shoot in a style and manner that was true, one that inherently spoke to his sensibilities as an artist who combined a love of documentary work with the infinite possibilities of photography. In these images we see a young man coming into his own, finding the pleasures of life that tickle his fancy, and capturing a moment in time that would soon be gone.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.