The big picture: David Godlis photographs a fading Jewish Disneyland – The Guardian

Miami’s sunshine, palm trees and Yiddish vaudeville were the hard-earned retirement dream of mid-century Jewish US immigrants
Last modified on Tue 16 Nov 2021 12.45 GMT
The photographer David Godlis first went to Miami Beach when he was a kid, visiting his grandparents who had retired there. This was the 1950s, and South Beach was, as he recalls, a kind of heaven for that older generation of Jewish immigrants – his grandparents were originally from Russia – who had scraped and struggled to make a life in America for their families, and could now enjoy the benefits of a purpose-built apartment, sunshine, palm trees and Yiddish vaudeville in Ocean Drive theatres. Those trips down by train from New York, with his mom, were, he says, “like visiting Jewish Disneyland”.
By the time he went to stay with his grandmother in 1974, some of that magic kingdom was starting to disappear. Godlis was 22 and trying to make his way as a photographer, inspired by the landmark exhibition of Diane Arbus’s extremes at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. On that visit he took his camera out on to Ocean Drive and shot 60 rolls of film in 10 days, pictures of the dream that his grandparents had lived, that was becoming a memory. This picture, of a woman outside a drugstore, is typical of those photographs, which are collected in a new book, Godlis Miami. The woman in her Jackie O shades inhabits both the confected glamour of the place that Godlis had known as a child, and the harsher day-to-day – discount insulin and cartons of smokes – of how it was turning out.

Looking back in his book, Godlis realises that on that trip he stumbled on how to take pictures – “Look. Concentrate. Shoot” – but also the invaluable trick of being in the right place at the right time. A couple of years later, he wandered into CBGB nightclub in the Bowery in New York and discovered a comparable world of garish make-believe – over the next few years he made his name as the in-house photographer of nascent punk rock.
Godlis Miami is published by Reel Art Press (£29.95). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply