Punk photog makes ‘History’ on Kickstarter with new CBGB book

Photos by Bob Krasner

Godlis with his new photo book on the CBGB scene, “History is Made at Night.” Photos by Bob Krasner

BY BOB KRASNER | New York, East Village, 1976. A local street photographer leaves his St. Mark’s apartment, walks into a bar full of punks and the rest, as he says, is “History Is Made At Night,”  the eagerly anticipated monograph of images shot in and outside of CBGB by Godlis. (He has a first name, but prefers not to use it.)

The limited edition art book is about to hit the shelves, thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign and Godlis’s determination to produce a book with integrity. Godlis spent three years — 1976 to ’79 — on the Bowery, late at night, documenting  the denizens, employees and the not particularly famous stars of that legendary rock ’n’ roll dive, knowing from the start that there was a book in it.

“Galleries are great for showing your work,” he explained. “But with a book, for a reasonable price someone can take home your work.”

Unfortunately, in the early ’80s the only publishing offers were for cheap quickies designed to make a few bucks. And that’s not what Godlis had in mind, as he planned to emulate the printed work of his inspirations, Brassaï, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

The years went by and in 1997 the photographer was featured with several of his peers in a book called “Blank Generation Revisited — The Early Days of Punk Rock.” (Godlis’s shot of Patti Smith was on the cover.) But the book that he had in his mind still did not exist.

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Godlis at home.


Not that he didn’t try: That book had been rejected by numerous publishers over the years. Proof of his earlier efforts to push the book is a mixtape of C.B.G.B. bands, including The Ramones and Talking Heads, among others, that he had compiled as a promotional tool and distributed to potential publishers with a then-current technology — a cassette tape.

Time went by and a few years ago a collector asked two questions while buying a print. The first was the one Godlis had been hearing for years: Why isn’t there a book? The second was the kicker (pun intended): Why don’t you do it yourself with Kickstarter?

It hadn’t occurred to him before, but Godlis knew that it wouldn’t be that simple. So, before he pushed the “launch” button, he spent months researching and developing the Kickstarter proposal, getting advice from photographer Henry Horenstein (his former teacher), Robert Gurbo (curator for the Andre Kertesz Foundation) and Michael Gramaglia (director of the Ramones documentary “End of the Century”), who would all go on to help with the book, as well.

Reward levels and strategies were decided as Godlis prepared for the daily task of updates and promotion for the site. Daily postings would relate to song titles. Thirty-second advertisements — styled to look like Jean-Luc Godard 1960s movie trailers — would be uploaded to Instagram and Facebook.

“It demanded a lot of attention,” he noted. “No one should do it unless they are really going to like doing it.”

Generally a KS campaign will run for 30 days. He decided to run his for “40 days and 40 nights.” What he didn’t foresee was that the ensuing deluge would consist of money — even more than he needed. Early backers like Chris Stein of the band Blondie helped him reach half of his $30,000 goal in three days.

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The mixtape Godlis used to send around to promote his idea for the book.

Within 48 hours there was a Google alert on the project and in six days, to Godlis’s astonishment, he had actually reached the goal. But the project did not rest on the seventh day — it went crazy.

“I thought someone had hacked my account,” he recalled. “Because Kickstarter had put me on the main page as a recommended proposal, I was getting a new backer every 30 seconds. I felt like I had a hit record! I was prepared for everything to go wrong, but everything went right.”

He ended up with $115,000 — minus KS fees — more than enough to do it right.

He had more than 1,000 backers, having presold 850 books and 100 prints.

“The numbers are overwhelming to me, and it was great, but you still have to make a book,” he noted.

He hired award-winning designer Laura Lindgren, who is also the publisher of Blast Books, to do the design. That left a few open positions for Godlis.

“I’m basically the editorial department, publicity department, accounting and production departments — and the publisher,” he said. “This project is very close to my heart, and I wasn’t going to screw it up.”

Blurb was the tool of choice for prototypes. But once the size, shape and the number of images were determined, it was the editing and sequencing that proved to be the difficult part.

“I spent two months putting the puzzle together — I didn’t think it would be that hard,” he said.

But it still wasn’t right. A friend convinced him to put it aside for two weeks, which he did. It was the right move.

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A punk photographer in his pad.

“I came back and finished it in one day,” he said. “And once I had done that, I had to do a really great cover.”

Since he was his own boss, he was able to choose the shot for artistic rather than commercial reasons.

“A publisher would have made me put Patti Smith on the cover, and it was not a book about Patti,” he noted. The cover features a 1978 shot of a group of No Wave punks, including Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradly Field and Liz Seidman.

The title was easy, since he had chosen it years ago from an old Charles Boyer movie — “Not a very good one, though,” he noted. The foreword was handled by his “friend from back in the day,” director Jim Jarmusch. “I was overwhelmed by how much time he spent on it,” Godlis said.

Once the 2,500 books landed in the warehouse, the artist began the monumental task of signing and numbering the presold books, as well as packaging them with prints and sending them out to his backers.

The only thing left was to hand over the distribution to Matthew Leifheit of Matte Magazine, who is handling it under his Matte imprint.

“I’m really proud of it,” Godlis said. “When I look at it, I can see every decision that I made. I shed a little blood for each page. I’m ready to get it into people’s hands.”

The book launch is Thurs., June 23, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Howl Happening Gallery, 6 E. First St. The gallery will feature a slideshow from the book on Thurs., June 30, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

For a history of the Kickstarter campaign, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1745732143/cbgb-punk-photos-by-godlis-1976-1979-the-book?ref=discovery .

For more on Godlis and his photograpy, visit his Web site,  http://www.godlis.com/ .

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