The fascinating street photography of David Godlis

A new photo book is celebrating the photographer’s insightful imagery of Boston and New York in the 70s and 80s, and his mission to ‘conquer the streets’

Photographer David Godlis is perhaps best known for his grainy black and white images of New York nightclub CBGB, when it was home to punk scene legends including the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Talking Heads.

Born in Manhattan in 1951, Godlis began taking photos in his sophomore year at Boston University. He has since become one of the most important imagemakers of his generation, working as the photographer for Film at Lincoln Center since the late 80s and the unofficial photographer of the New York Film Festival for the last 25 years.

Top: NYC, 1979; Above: NYC, 1980. All images © GODLIS

It was street photography, however, which swiftly became Godlis’ first love after he went to see a MoMA retrospective of work by Diane Arbus in 1972. Shortly after, he enrolled in the Imageworks School of Photography in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began burying himself in the recent history of street photography.

Alongside his other work, a big part of Godlis’ early practice involved him walking around the streets of first Boston and later New York City, shooting whatever caught his eye along the way.

Boston, 1974

Published by Reel Art Press, new book Godlis Streets is the first publication dedicated to the street photography of the celebrated imagemaker. Featuring a foreword by critic Luc Sante and an afterword by Blondie co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein, it focuses largely on his black and white imagery from the 70s and 80s.

The book explores how Godlis was heavily influenced by Brassai’s immersive reportage of 1930s Paris, alongside the work of other street photographers such as Arbus, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.

Times Square NYC, 1980

Godlis’ own approach to street photography was largely instinctual and immediate, shooting scenes and subjects with long handheld Leica exposures and using only natural light.

From nuns walking past crude advertisements to signs claiming that ‘the end is nigh’, the striking images are a testament to the grit and the glamour inherent in the photographer’s self-declared mission: “It was the streets I wanted to conquer”.

Godlis Streets by David Godlis is published by Reel Art Press;