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The Godlis guide to street photography

Godlis is one of the world’s most revered photographers. Here he explains how he conquered the streets

I am a street photographer. I walk the streets and take pictures. Sometimes I do it for a particular reason. And sometimes I just do it.

My fingers are itching to trip the shutter while I’m having my first cup of morning coffee.

My camera is the perfect modern contraption. With it I can pluck pictures out of thin air.

When I first saw the pictures of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander – the list goes on and on of talented street photographers – I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Just walk around New York City with a camera shooting pictures. Walk around America with a camera.

That all started at age 20 when I bought a Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR.

All the pictures in this feature flow from that first purchase. And I’ve been shooting non-stop ever since.

NYC, 1979 by Godlis

I took to it rather quickly. I guess I had the eye. I took a course to learn how to use a darkroom.

We only had film, not JPEGs back then. I shot mostly black and white on TRI-X film. Robert Frank said, “black and white are the colors of photography.” That sounded good. So I learned to see in black and white.

First I took pictures of my friends, and then I tried to take pictures of people I didn’t know, without their knowing. I took to that rather quickly, too.

Robert Capa said, “if it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.” He was right, and so I taught myself how to get close enough.

I switched in 1974 to a Leica M3 rangefinder – the street shooters’ camera. Garry Winogrand said things look different through a rangefinder than an SLR. He was right.

Lee Friedlander did self-portraits with his Leica M camera and he looked very cool. So I tried that, too.

Boston, 1974, Godlis

Diane Arbus shot pictures of interesting Jews and circus freaks. I didn’t know any circus freaks, so I shot the Jews of Miami Beach.

Eventually my dad got me a pass to shoot the circus when hewas playing in the circus band.

But it was the streets that I wanted to conquer. Lisette Model said, “photography is the art of the split second.” So I taught myself to be fast – to “zone focus” with my 35mm wide angle lens. We didn’t have auto-focus back then.

I didn’t use a light meter. Had it all in my head.

Lee Friedlander said, “a photographer is a sort of high-class tourist, who basically has an attenuated curiosity about the same stuff that other people go for.”

That was a perfect explanation from a man who made perfect pictures. No high art aims. Just street photographs. That was the thing I wanted to learn how to make. Again, practice makes perfect.

NYC, 1980, Godlis

In the 1950s, there was a TV show called Man With A Camera, starring Charles Bronson, which I saw on DVD.

He too used a Leica, and solved mysteries with his camera in every episode.

Garry Winogrand said, “there is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” Now that is genius.

Winogrand’s pictures are gloriously unsolvable riddles. I set out to make me some of those.

It begins by not thinking too much. I work mostly on instinct. Eyes open. Shoot first – think later.

I started my street work first in Boston where I went to photography school, at a place called Imageworks. Then on visits to New York City. And eventually I moved down to New York City, the East Village, where I got myself kind of sidetracked on the Bowery shooting night street photographs of punks in the style of Brassaï.

Then it was right back to street photography again in 1979, after taking a seminar with Garry Winogrand. He set me straight on the path, and I’m still out there, in the twenty-first century, on the street where you live.

Lee Friedlander said, “You don’t have to go looking for pictures. You go out and pictures are staring at you.” He sure was right about that.

Godlis Streets is out now (£29.95); Reel Art Press, reelartpress.com