Legendary East Village photographer’s latest book on vintage images gets modern boost

Godlis photographed next to what’s left of the recently closed Gem Spa, on St. Marks Place.
Photo by Bob Krasner


Long time East Village photographer Godlis has a new book out and he credits this collection of street photography, “Godlis Streets,” to an unforeseen collaboration.

His first monograph, “History is Made at Night,” is a survey of his late 1970s images taken inside and outside of the legendary CBGB’s that became reality as a result of an extremely popular Kickstarter campaign.

This time around, Instagram was the catalyst.

“I was feeling depressed in the spring of 2019,” he explains. “I started going through my street photos and posting them on Instagram.”

After getting a surprise endorsement from noted street photographer Clay Benskin, Godlis suddenly had a whole new group of followers who were interested in his street work, which covers the years 1974 to 1990.

He began interacting with his new audience, asking for their opinions.

“The reactions surprised me,” he says. “They influenced how I saw the work. The cover of the book wasn’t initially one of my favorites, but it got a wild reaction.”

The second book by Godlis, published by Reel Art Press, collects his street photography from 1974 – 1990 .Photo by Bob Krasner

Another thing that he didn’t see coming was a message from Reel Art Press.

“We’ll be very upset if you don’t do a street pic book with us! ” Godlis recalls them saying. “When a publisher comes to you, it’s remarkable,” he adds.

He began to intensely organize and date everything, getting feedback along the way from the Instagram community.

“The editing process was a collaboration with my followers,” he notes, “and it came at a time when I needed something to do.”

The process continued to move forward until he hit a roadblock in the form of a pandemic.

“Tony Nourmand from Reel Art had planned to come to New York to help finalize the book but that was no longer possible,” Godlis relates. “Thank God for Zoom!”

Top: Samo Girls, EastVillage , 1980 by Godlis
Bottom: Godlis Sits In , 2020 by Bob Krasner

After a short and, luckily, mild bout with COVID-19, Godlis began determining the size, shape and content of the book electronically with Nourmand, who is based in England.

Godlis looked to some of his inspirations – the Diane Arbus monograph and Robert Frank’s classic “The Americans” to choose the number of pics that would go in and then went on to do the sequencing, which took about two months and kept him busy during the lockdown. The images came from a short period in Boston and then from his formative years in NYC.

“I left Boston after I was robbed there,” he recalls, laughing. “I thought it would be safer in New York. … I never understood why I wasn’t taking pictures in Boston like the ones I saw being done in New York. When I got here I realized it was because I wasn’t taking pictures of New Yorkers.”

Top: Veselka Couple, East Village, 1982 by Godlis
Bottom: Godlis Solo, East Village, 2020 by Bob Krasner

After shooting CBGB’s at night for a few years, he concentrated more on daytime imagery. His confidence in his work was boosted with a thumbs up from an undisputed master of the craft.

Godlis presented 60 of his photos to Garry Winogrand during a seminar, who whittled them down to two and growled, “These shots make it.”

“I went on a tear after that – I was much more sure of myself,” he recalls. “I shot like crazy.”

The results are in this book. With a sense of composition and a sense of humor, he managed to capture a period of time as if he were a visitor from the future, freezing moments that represent what it meant to live back then – memorializing porn theaters, street preachers and omnipresent cigarette ads as if he knew they would all be gone by the time the book was published.

At one point though, Godlis hit what he calls “a mid-life photo crisis.” He had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and interest in his type of art was waning.

“Why do I keep shooting?” he asked his therapist. After bemoaning his situation, the therapist summed it up for him.

“So,” they said, “you’re telling me that you no longer want to go into a dark room, with a lot of negatives, and you’re having trouble processing?”

“Luckily,” he says, “digital came along.”

If you see him on the street today, there’s a camera around his neck, although he no longer puts film into the rangefinder Leica that he used to produce these images — that’s been replaced with a digital Fujifilm X-E3.

And he has no problem with the fact that everyone and their granny is out there taking pictures.

“I think that there is the stuff that everyone does and the stuff that a few people do,” he states. “I persisted because I love it and I think I have something different from everyone else.”

Left : Descending St. Marks Staircase, 1980 by Godlis
Right: Godlis Descending St. Marks Staircase, 2020 by Bob Krasner

Two heads nodding in agreement are the esteemed author Luc Sante and the celebrated musician/photographer Chris Stein, who wrote the forward and afterword, respectively, for the book.

“Lots of people are good at lots of things,” Godlis muses. “The only thing I’m good at is photography.”

Godlis can be followed on Instagram @godlis, investigated at godlis.com and signed copies of “Godlis Streets” are intermittently available at rizzolibookstore.com.