DAVID GODLIS with Jacquelyn Gallo
History Is Made at Night
Four years ago, while wondering aimlessly through Tompkins Square Park one sunny, summer afternoon, I looked up and noticed one of the park’s famed red-tailed hawks feasting on the remains of a pigeon. I became entranced with the gruesome sight. It was beautiful and horrible, bloody and real. After a short time, I realized there was a large group watching one bird cannibalize another against the backdrop of the park’s venerable elm trees, musing over the oddity. As I watched the vicious and glorious bird gnawing on the innards of its counterpart, I realized this was precisely the honest spirit of voyeurism I wanted to evoke in the latest project my best friend and I were compiling: a multimedia collection of vulgar, gross-out art. But there was one problem. The show’s original Lower East Side venue didn’t get it. They wanted to censor it, to tone it down so that it would appeal to, rather than repel, its board members. Wearily, we decided to withdraw the show and look for a new space. Not wanting to compromise the integrity of our amoral show, we found a large gallery in Brooklyn that would essentially let us have our way. After a lot of hard work and tedious effort, we opened an unforgettable exhibition which drew over 500 people to collectively behold some of the strangest, and most honest work in NYC.
New York City photographer David Godlis spent decades trying to pitch a book of raw, imaginative, no flash photos highlighting an important slice of CBGB’s nocturnal history. But publishers didn’t get it. Was it a music book or was it an art book? No one was willing to take the plunge, and so, with his distinct vision intact, Godlis decided to take things into his own hands and produce the book himself. Unwilling to allow his artistic vision to be reduced to a cheaply made music book, he turned to crowdfunding to raise money so the book could be done right. Self-made success has a lot to do with timing, good ideas, and knowing how to use one’s resources. We live in an age where digital platforms like Kickstarter, Airbnb, and Ebay can enable a person to become an entrepreneur with their own self-contained, no-ownership business, or create their own destiny at night, in their home, at their computer, with the stroke of one key. For six weeks Godlis managed a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $100,000 over his initial goal. For the last two years, he’s mulled over tedious bookmaking decisions to create his masterpiece. The outcome: History Is Made at Night, an honest and gratifying collection of photographs unveiling the strange and wondrous 1970s punk scene he and his friends were once part of. Featuring an inspired introduction by esteemed filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, the book can now be owned by anyone with $40.
I met with Godlis, my friend and neighbor, at Cafe Orlin, in the East Village, just after 10am. Over breakfast we chatted about how he’s brought photos from four decades ago back into our world and explained, from bones to flesh, how he finally created the book of his dreams.
Jacquelyn Gallo: How long did you look for a publisher? And how did you pitch the book?
David Godlis: Probably like twenty years. It was shot in the 70s and I started looking for a publisher in the late 80s. I decidedly started looking for a publisher in the 90s because by then the whole era that I photographed had became history after Nirvana hit and then Please Kill Me (the “Uncensored Oral History of Punk” published in 1996) codified what the punk scene was at CBGB’s and the importance of it. At one point I had an agent pitching it. I gave them photos, written materials, and a cassette tape with a mix of songs from that era like Patti (Smith), Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads. I still have the cassette tape and on it is written History is Made at Night. But I was trying to pitch a photo book. I wanted to take these punk photographs that I shot in a style of Robert Frank, Brassaï, and other photographers, and put out a photo book that’s the equivalent of The Americans or Diane Arbus’ (An Aperture) Monograph. But when I took it to a publisher they saw a music book. They couldn’t quite understand because I mixed in famous people with not famous people and to them my pictures looked grainy and out of focus. But I couldn’t convince anybody in the (art) photo section to do a book that involved music. It was not considered art, but in the scene I was in, everything was considered art. So I'd show these to my friends who I went to art school with, and they'd go, why are you wasting your time, you're such a great photographer? I’d play them a record by the Ramones, and they'd go, ugh, you're wasting your time on really bad music, it's not even good music you're photographing. People didn't get it. They didn't get that it wasn't three-chord lousy rock, it was really cool music and a really cool coming together of filmmakers like (Jim) Jarmsusch, designers like Anna Sui, and writers like James Wolcott. It was a mix of all kinds of people doing something new. So I shopped it around. I’d always get in compilations of photographs but I wouldn’t get my own book.
Gallo: Do you still have any of the rejection letters, what were their comments?
Godlis: I’m sure I do. They’d be like well we have another CBGB’s book in the works, we have another punk book in the works, come back in another year or two. I think the underlying thing they couldn’t justify was, why me? I didn't have another book out so therefore what is it about me that makes me unique?
Gallo: Do you think they’re kicking themselves now?
Godlis: Two of the people who rejected me bought books on Kickstarter.
Gallo: Did it feel like the right time to self publish?
Godlis: Yeah, a guy bought a photograph of mine and he asked me why don’t I have a book out, and then he suggested why don’t I do a Kickstarter (KS). I started to seriously think about, it got inside my head. I saw someone else do a book on KS that was very successful. His name was Elliott Landy and I went, oh thank god, I don’t have to be the first, because I hate being the first, you have to figure it all out, and then everybody starts copying you. I actually called him up and said, I love what you did and I’m going to kind of mold my thing a little like yours, I hope you’re not offended. And he was very nice. I was just so happy to have some kind of template to put my KS up. From there I did it my way.
Gallo: There’s this big dispute in the publishing world which is online versus print. There are so many magazines and journals that are going strictly online, some people are upset about it and some think it’s the new frontier. What do you think about the way people view something on a screen versus a tangible object?
Godlis: The equivalent of looking at something on a screen is like going to a gallery show and not being able to afford the pictures. I love looking at images digitally onscreen but a book is a tangible object that I think very closely resembles a box of good photographs. And especially with these pictures because they relate back to the pre-digital era. But I had a mid-life photography crisis that digital photography solved. I started to have too many proof sheets, too many negatives, and too many things to go in the dark room to print. I said to my therapist at the time, I’ve got all these negatives and I don't want to go in the darkroom and develop the film and have more negatives and I don’t want to shoot the film because then I’ll have to go in the darkroom and have more negatives. And she said to me, so you don’t want to go into “a dark room”, and you’re having trouble “processing things” and you have “too many negatives.” She said, that’s kind of the core of your crisis, we’re going to have to work on that. And just around that time digital photography started to be affordable and I could stop shooting film as much.
Gallo: I was going to ask because you had always been a very analog photographer, a sort of purist who never used flash, and yet you used all of these millennial mediums to get this project and your work out there. Can you talk about that intersection?
Godlis: What struck me about KS is it’s a DIY way of self-publishing that echoed the DIY scene I photographed. It immediately struck home that maybe this package to convince not a publisher but people who would buy the book, to fund it or make it happen, might be a better way to do it. One person said, I think by explaining it the way you did in your KS video, you explained it better than you could have ever explained it to a publisher. The thing that was always missing is you couldn’t convince a publisher that you were part of this process, that it wasn't just your pictures.
Gallo: I want to get into the whole KS process. You talked a little about how you had a bit of help and a template. What else was the process like, compiling and launching, and dealing with all of the various hats you had to wear?
Godlis: It was a learning process, it’s not like I knew how to do a KS. What I knew how to do prior to that was post on Facebook (FB). It occurred to me that FB would be a good place to post pictures that had no place to go. I’d go into my archives and post a couple of pictures of the East Village in the 80s, some pictures of the punk scene, some pictures of the streets of New York that I’d shot that week. I became really comfortable and I started to acquire a following. I enjoyed seeing the reaction that people had to the photos as if in real world I was showing them a picture, here I was showing it online and a group of people were commenting on it. When I did the KS it was almost an extension of that but focused on a particular project. So I set it up, and had to pick a time frame. I wanted to raise $30,000.
Gallo: Where did you get that $30,000 figure from?
Godlis: I don’t know, I made it up. How would I know how much it would cost to make a book? Elliott Landy had $65,000 as the goal, and I went, that’s way too much. If you don’t make your goal, you don’t make anything. I started to think, you could reasonably publish a book for $30,000. And also I thought, I can make $30,000, here’s what I have to do. I had a $75 version of the book, and a $400 version of the book. One came with a print, one came just as the book. And then there was the time frame, how long would it take? I didn’t want to make it too long or too short, I decided to go with exactly forty days. Then I could tell people when announcing it that it’s going to be forty days and forty nights.
Gallo: Your book well exceeded your KS expectation and pre-sold 850 copies. Were you completely shocked?
Godlis: I was pleasantly shocked. I made $30,000 in like ten days. All the time I was taking this gamble that this might be better for me than going after more publishers. I was like, what if I embarrass myself publicly, then I get nothing and nobody cares. A lot of people do it and they don’t make the money. But I was definitely shocked at how viral it went and how quickly it went.
Gallo: In the end you raised over $130,000?
Godlis: Yeah that’s the number they say but you don’t get that because they take money out. So it was a little over $110,000, which is still like, wow, right? People were watching it on KS, like I was entertainment. People were calling me up going, do you know what your number is today? And I’d go, I didn’t look, I’m busy thinking about what I’m going to write today. So I sort of had this notion, people can go onto KS and it’s entertaining for them. Whether they paid in or didn’t, it didn’t matter, they were all enjoying it.
Gallo: Like they were all part of the process?
Godlis: Yeah, because once you start watching it, like a long form television show, you’re invested in it. Mine was a long form television show on KS that kept bouncing up the charts. And people said, you have to make it fun. When I made the video I called my daughter up and said I need help. She came down from New Paltz and recorded it on a low tech camera. We went out and shot a little bit in B&W on the Bowery. She said, just tell your Patti Smith story, tell your Blondie story, tell your Ramones story, and then edited it together like a good millennial. The next thing I knew, I had a really cool video. People told me, your video explained very easily to people why they should help you out. It was all a very DIY thing. It was about helping this book that’s about a DIY scene where people made their own 45’s, made their own records, made their own posters, advertised their own bands before the Internet, and could use the streets of New York to advertise.
Gallo: Talking about self doubt and other people influencing you, especially during that KS process, after reading some of the comments on KS, it seems there were so many people demanding your attention, did you become your own customer relations department?
Godlis: Yes! All you read is one bad comment and then you just go like, oh everybody feels like this. but for every bad comment, people were writing me personally telling me, don’t listen to that guy, you take your time, do it your way, that’s why I’m in here.
Gallo: I imagine one strong benefit of having a publisher is they might act as a barrier between you and the consumer who wants it fast and wants it now.
Godlis: Yes, I kind of think some people have social media neurosis. They’ve got to get up there and whip a whole bunch of people into thinking I’m not doing things right. I’m like, you want to put out a book? You put out a book. You want your money back? I’ll give you your money back. They don’t want their money back, they want to be part of the social media process of complaining.
Gallo: Would you recommend self-publishing to authors and artists who are having a hard time getting a publisher on board? Do you think you really need to be connected to get somewhere?
Godlis: It’s not for everybody. But I think I knew more than the publishers in terms of how to market myself. My wife worked in publishing for a long time and she was like, publishers would never know how to handle your publicity. Even now with the book out, it’s not like I have a publicist, but people are coming to me all the time to do articles. It’s just a matter of whether you’re in tuned to be able to do that. I’m still learning how to get it into book stores. I’m literally in touch with the Strand today about getting it in (there). It’s just a matter of how do you do that? You have no publisher, and so you don’t have a distributor, so you have to figure out how to do it. You have to find the book buyer. It takes time.
Gallo: It’s amazing that, in what feels like an overwhelmingly corporate America, there still exists these opportunities to be self-made. It seems like that would have been squeezed out at some point.
Godlis: Well, it was squeezed out, but everybody in that scene was part of a bunch of people that had been squeezed out of the music business. They were getting into their mid to late 20s, many of them, and the music business was full of boring, large arena rock bands. So they put their thinking caps on and found this hole in the wall on the Bowery to try and get some attention. The whole thing was a DIY scene, so my project resonated with the people from that scene who were helping me out, and it resonated with people who knew what that scene was, who were even a little bit younger. KS is just a homepage for various projects so if you want to stand out, you have to have an interesting project, and you also have to have an interesting way of presenting your interesting project.
Gallo: When I was researching the first self-published books, I discovered that The Joy of Cooking was self-published in 1931 by Irma Rombauer, a housewife whose husband had committed suicide. She and her daughter put this book together,her daughter did the illustrations and she did the recipes. She seemed to have a very unconventional, story telling way of presenting her recipes that maybe publishers didn’t like. Do you think self-publishing opens the doors for people with marginalized voices to get their work out there?
Godlis: I don’t think I would have been able to do the same book if I hadn’t done it by self-publishing. You take it to a publisher and they want it to look like their imprint. They have a format, because they want to have an identity. Everything from what the title of the book would be, what the shape of the book would be, what the cover of the book would be, I got to make all those decisions. I had final cut on everything.
Gallo: A friend of mine was battling with an editor over the cover photo for his book. He wanted to use a certain image he felt best represented his work. They wanted to use something that was more provocative.
Godlis: Of course, two things I was told was a) Patti Smith should be on the cover and b) the title should be shorter, it should be a two word title. As I started to put the book together I started to understand that if I put Patti Smith on the cover, people would think it’s a Patti Smith book, it wouldn't read right. And I had this title for twenty years but I did go down the rabbit hole thinking of probably fifty two-word titles, all of which were usable. But in the end Jim Jarmusch was like, no, you have to use this title.
Gallo: When did the design process come into play?
Godlis: Once the KS ended in Sept of 2014, well, I was exhausted because it was six weeks long, but once I earned money, I hired a high-end designer. I interviewed Laura Lindgren down on Broome St and we hit it off right away. She designs art books for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She said, I love punk, I don’t have that much time, but I’ll fit you in. I paid her to a) be the designer and b) walk me through the process. I had my ideas, she had her ideas but look at this way, there were so many decisions: should it be a vertical book, should it be a horizontal book, should it be a white cover, should it be a black cover. I realized white was better because the photos stood out. I went over to the Strand and kept looking at books going, too big, too small, too thick. I didn’t want to have a dust jacket, it always get’s lost, it always gets damaged, so I said no, you’re going to print on the book. For the introduction, Jim said he wanted it formatted with the same spacing he sent me. The (photo) sequence took me about a month to do. Instead of putting Patti on the cover I made her the first picture in a sweep of pictures. The printer sent me the book with the same amount of pages, nothing printed in it. And then we got the cover test back. Every one of these steps was great because I got to do it, a publisher would never have let me go through all these steps, an art director would make all these decisions, not me. But I got to make every single one of them.
Gallo: Did you create all the captions?
Godlis: Yeah, I created all the captions and I was the copyeditor on the captions. My designer helped me with that, how you copy edit, what should be italicized, what should be capitalized, and what should match each other.
Gallo: It’s such a conflicting emotional state, because the photography, the music itself, all of this is a sort of expression of freedom, it doesn’t have that specificity that went in the book and all of those tedious decisions.
Godlis: It doesn’t but I think most of the New York scene were looking to make something long term even though they were making it in this style that seemed so reckless. Remember to do it reckless but remember that it’s going to last, that’s a really tough nut to crack isn’t it? But I do think underneath all the big talk, they were really serious about what they were creating. The Ramones were not a bunch of dumb people making dumb songs, they thought about how to make dumb songs. They weren’t self conscious about it. “I don’t wanna walk around with you, so why you wanna walk around with me?” That was it, that’s all there needs to be, just sing that three times.
Gallo: Did you actually work with Jim Jarmusch on the introduction or were you shocked?
Godlis: I was completely shocked.
Gallo: It’s extremely flattering. When you first read it, what kind of feelings did you have?
Godlis: I was so astounded when I got it on the computer. I had spoken to him two days before and we went over a couple of questions he had for me. He told me he had been working on it for two weeks, that enough was like wow, okay. He sent it two days later and I just sat there going, oh my god, this is more than I could possibly hope for. I didn’t expect him to so carefully and so beautifully write that piece which really sits so well as an introduction.
Gallo: Let me read one quote from it, he said: “For decades now I’ve frequently returned to his photos, without ever feeling nostalgic, or forced to return to the past. Instead they make me feel like I’m dreaming, like I’m still in the dream as it unfolds around me, as it folds into me, mixing memory with imagination, pleasure with inspiration. Everything is happening again, but for the first time; “déjà vu all over again . . .”
Godlis: That sounds so good when you read it! What can I say, it’s so poetic. I think he caught something about my photographs. We’ve always admired each other’s work over the years. I knew him when he was in film school. There’s a similarity in what we both do. I was hoping for an intro that would match up toThe Americans, where Jack Kerouac did the intro, but you can’t expect that’s going to happen.
Gallo: I love that he (Jarmusch) brings the work to life with the opening statement. It’s not something that you’re supposed to just remember, it’s something that’s still alive for him and for a lot of people.
Godlis: Oh yeah, Lenny Kaye (guitarist for Patti Smith Group) told me the other day, you really caught the whole thing of people hanging out in a scene like that. I may not have the best pictures of every band, but everybody would say, you have the best pictures of CBGB’s, what I remember it as, is your pictures. And so that was the burden of putting this book together, it had to be a representation of that, it had to have people that were not famous, people that were famous, and it had to be all great photos. I set myself a lot of high standards.
Gallo: In addition to the book, what other opportunities has the launch of this book lead to and what’s on the horizon?
Godlis: From the time I told people I was going to do a KS, one of the people I told was Jane Friedman at Howl Gallery. At the time she told me she was going to be opening a gallery nearby CBGB’s, don’t tell anyone, and I want you to do your book event there. I wanted to do the book launch there because that was closest to the people that helped support the book and the community that I shot photographs of. Jane was Patti Smith’s first manager and so she had a feel for that. Also agnes b. always wanted to do an exhibition when the book came out. So once I got the book back in June and agnes saw it, they said okay, we’ve got a date for you in September. So that became two events from supporters.
Gallo: Do you plan on doing any kind of book tour?
Godlis: I’m still working on it. I would love to do as many book signings as I can and any that involve a slide show, where I talk about the pictures. I’m pretty good at it!
History Is Made at Night can be ordered online at: