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Shots in the dark with David Godlis

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The photographer who captured the cool, dark birthplace of punk rock

‘Hippies were rainbow extremists; punks are romantics of black-and-white. Hippies forced warmth; punks cultivate cool.’
– Robert Christgau, reviewing the album The Scream (1978) by Siouxsie and the Banshees

New York City, lower Manhattan, the mid-1970s. It’s midnight in the Bowery neighbourhood. The block is desolate and dark – yet not entirely without signs of life. Glowing, like a beacon for misfits and outcasts, is an awning over a nondescript bar that reads ‘CBGB’. Inside, a wild frenzy of loud and eccentric music being devoured by a huddle of sweaty, mostly young, perhaps somewhat-under-the-influence people in the audience. This grungy setting is the birthplace of punk – a new genre and cultural movement that will reject pretence and strip rock music down to its bare bones.

Punk is often thought of as a reaction to the colourful hippie aesthetic of the 1960s. And looking back now, it may be hard to picture the scene inside CBGB in anything other than grainy black and white – an artefact of collective memory created by the US photographer David Godlis, who documented the era with a stark candour. The short animated film Shots in the Dark with David Godlis chronicles his time as CBGB’s unofficial resident documentarian during its late-1970s heyday. An energetic storyteller through both words and images, Godlis recounts working as an uninspired studio assistant, yearning to be a street photographer. CBGB, he explains, provided the characters he was seeking. Godlis not only memorialised some of the first ever performances of legendary bands such as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, and the Patti Smith Group, to name a few, he also turned his lens on the scene itself, capturing CBGB’s crowds, staff and dingy-yet-electric atmosphere, all of which contributed to the punk aesthetic and cultural moment.

In the film, Godlis’s rousing stories and images are brought to new life by Lewie and Noah Kloster, two brothers and animators living and working in a post-CBGB New York City, the club having closed its doors in 2006 amid rising rents and a rapidly changing cityscape. For the short, the duo adapted their visual style of cutout animation to incorporate Godlis’s iconic photographs – with the harsh electric guitars and guttural yells that defined the punk sound rounding out the audiovisual nostalgia trip. The result is a distinctive handmade tableau that emulates the DIY spirit of New York City’s 1970s punk-rock scene. Channeling the cultural shift from 1960s as captured in Godlis’s self-developed black-and-white photos, the Klosters’ frenetic adaptation of his work revives the ‘romantic cool’ of that underground scene, giving it new life more than 40 years later – at a moment when rock and roll may just be due for another rebirth.

Written by Tamur Qutab