Then 22 years old, the native New Yorker was studying at Imageworks Photography in East Cambridge, MA, and became deeply immersed in the work of Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. But as an aspiring neophyte, Godlis yearned to discover his own vision and style of photography.
Long before Miami Beach’s collapse and ensuing renaissance, the beachfront city was home to Jews who decided to spend their golden years basking in the sun. Growing up on Long Island, Godlis recounts childhood winters spent down south during the 1950s and early ‘60s, an experience he describes as akin to “Jewish Disneyland.” After retiring, his grandfather bought a multi-apartment complex so that family members would have a place to stay as long as they liked.
And they did just that. Godlis remembers his mother calling the airline to cancel their flight so that they could stay in Miami Beach just a little bit longer. As a child, the Yiddish enclave provided the perfect escape with its distinctive mixture of delicatessens like Wolfie’s and the Rascal House, a dog track, and the piers. “My grandfather would take me out in the Oldsmobile, and we’d drive to some bridge to go fishing,” he recalls. “I remember I had this little camera that probably cost a dollar at one of those stores on Lincoln Road. It took terrible photos but it was mine.”
Miami, You’ve Got Style
After Godlis’s grandfather died, the family decided to travel to Miami Beach to decide how best to help his grandmother adjust to the transition in her life. “I hadn’t been to visit for a number of years, and I decided to join them,” he remembers of the trip he made in January 1974. “I had a notion that this might be a good place to photograph. The Diane Arbus book had come out in 1972, and while I didn’t know any circus freaks, I knew some elderly Jews. That gave me an opening into her work because that was something I could see myself doing. I realized I could photograph people that are like me.”
With the sole intention of being present and engaged, Godlis began making his daily walkabout down Lincoln Road, the place of youthful memories, perusing tourist shops for alligator-themed curios. From there he wandered down Ocean Drive. Amid the art deco hotels, retirees fluttered like birds of paradise, replete with fanciful beach outfits and glamorous bouffants, ready for a day of canasta and camaraderie under the swaying palm trees. Their theatrical personalities matched their flamboyant sense of style. They embraced Godlis, a young single man, like he was pastrami on rye.
“I hit gold,” he remembers. “I was there for about ten days and shot 60 rolls of film. I would walk on the beach and everyone would ask, ‘How long are you here for? You have to meet my granddaughter!’”
Moving comfortably through a world he knew well, Godlis easily engaged with the people he encountered along his path. “It was almost like they were letting me into their living room, but they were sitting on the beach,” he says. “They were all dressed up, hair and makeup done, ready for their close up. I remember taking a photograph of a woman on the beach, and she was saying, ‘Why are you taking my picture?’ but what she really meant was, ‘Please take my picture!’” Godlis recalls.
“I know Jewish ladies. There are some that are hard as a rock and some of them are so sweet. Some will wave you off with their hands, and others will pull themselves together for the photograph. The photograph of the two women with their hair done reminds me of Diane Arbus’s twins. I was probably thinking that in my mind, like, ‘Wow, look what I’ve got in front of me. Don’t mess this one up!”
So Nice I’ll Say it Twice
After returning to Imageworks, Godlis developed the film and made proof sheets. Students gathered around to look at each other’s work, and quickly recognized that in just two weeks Godlis had done something extraordinary. “People asked me, ‘How did you get these pictures?’ and I didn’t know. Suddenly I was no longer the guy trying to take good pictures. I had figured it out somehow,” says Godlis.
“I wasn’t thinking so hard. Something Winogrand said had stuck in my head: to concentrate on what’s inside the viewfinder. That was my strategy: to focus on what my eyes saw, not what my brain was telling me. I took the show when I felt like it was right and stopped worrying. In the end it produced this, a crazy amount of good work at that age. I don’t know if I could go down now and replicate that in 10 days.”
In feeling that he was one with his people, Godlis was set free and finally able to do the kind of photography he had always dreamed of. In allowing himself to be fully present with no other intention than capturing photographs, Godlis learned to trust his instincts and quickly found a way of seeing that was wholly his own, one that became the foundation upon which he built.
Two years later, Godlis brought this method to New York City when he began to photograph the burgeoning punk scene at CBGB on the Bowery. “I just continued down this path. Those pictures were so primal and personal that for a number of years, I thought that because they came so easy, they must not be that good. It took me a while to think I really did something here,” the photographer says. “The Miami trip was eye-opening. It was like losing my virginity in a way, because when this was over I never stopped going in whatever direction I found myself. Maybe nothing is as mysterious as you think it is. I didn’t have to go looking for pictures. They were right in front of me.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Godlis: Miami is published by Reel Art Press, $39.95.