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Out of the Cool: The New York Street Photographs of Godlis

Out of the Cool: The New York Street Photographs of Godlis

Native New York Godlis celebrates his hometown in a new book documenting alternately humorous, surreal, and poignant scenes of everyday life.
St. Marks Place, NYC, 1980 © Godlis

In 1975, New York had reached its breaking point. After years of being denied funding for essential services under the federal policy of “benign neglect,” the city was falling apart. Robberies, burglaries, and aggravated assault had spiked dramatically while the city was $34 million in debt, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. President Gerald Ford had just announced he would veto any bill calling for a federal bail out, effectively telling New York to drop dead.

Times Square, NYC, 1979 © Godlis

Though the city had been abandoned, those who remained were shaped and molded by the struggle for survival. They were the poor, the working class, the artists and eccentrics who understood nature abhors a vacuum and remade New York into a landscape of art, culture, and music unseen before or since. Though many had fled, some like city native Godlis returned with dreams of becoming a street photographer.

Times Square, NYC, 1980 © Godlis

Godlis got his start in photography in 1972 after seeing the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art during his sophomore year at Boston University. After graduating, he studied at ImageWorks alongside famous photographers Nan Goldin and Stanley Greene, and began walking the streets of Boston ­— but he quickly realized the photographs he was making did not have the grit and glamour of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, or Arbus. After getting robbed, Godlis realized, of the two cities New York was clearly the safer option.

NYC, 1980 © Godlis

Only in New York, Kids

At the end of 1975, Godlis moved into activist Abbie Hoffman’s former apartment on St. Marks Place, where he still lives. The following summer, he purchased a copy of Brassaï’s illustrated memoir, The Secret Paris of the 30s and immediately saw parallels between the artist’s world and his own. He set a course to capture the emerging punk scene, spending his evenings at CBGB on the Bowery photographing rising stars like Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and Debbie Harry.

5th Ave bus, NYC, 1976 © Godlis

But like a true flâneur, the streets beckoned and Godlis obliged. He set for on daytime jaunts, camera in hand, documenting quintessentially humorous, surreal, and poignant scenes of everyday life. Collected for the first time in the new book Godlis Streets (Reel Art Press), the photographer brings together images made on his daily strolls, creating a portrait of a city that has all but since disappeared. 

NYC, 1976 © Godlis

Amid the chaos and bedlam, Godlis found his beat, photographing the bohemians, bankers, nuns, prostitutes, housewives, children, old ladies, and punks co-existing in a city that has more in common with the 1940s than it does with the present times. Here, denizens are both participants and witnesses to the theatrical qualities of life as it unfolds. There’s an existential glamour to the people Godlis photographs, their very being a testament to the power of survival against the odds. Through Godlis’s lens, we see an era coming to an end, a time when anyone could afford to call the city home.

Veselka, NYC, 1982 © Godlis

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

NYC, 1983 © Godlis
Astor Place, NYC, 1980 © Godlis

Godlis Streets 
Published by Reel Art Press

Book available here.

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