Q&A: Meryl Meisler — Disco Era Bushwick & SASSY 70’s


Have you recently been living by any life philosophy? Life is fragile. Health and wellbeing come first. What will baffle future generations about our day and age? How and why did the Trump administration degrade the US presidency, society and humanitarian spirit so ruthlessly and quickly? Are you aware of any conspiracies? There are multitudes of conspiracies and conspiracy theories. I don’t have a particular inside knowledge of any. What is it that interests you about photography? For me, photography is a form of memoir that takes on greater meaning with time. It can be very personal, spiritual, emotional, and mysterious as well possessing potential for cultural and historical significance. Photography is a powerful democratic tool. A photographic device, like a pencil, is highly assessible and can be used by to think, plan, reflect, document, on a personal level and/or create potentially great works of art that have long lasting historical and cultural impact.. What is the worst thing about city life? Cities can get very congested and noisy. What part of the planet would you like to explore? There are so many places I would love to explore, with the condition I can visit and come home safely. What do you think is the most plausible of the supernatural? I think that ghosts and spirits are plausible. Several people whom I consider “down to earth” have seen ghosts. Personally, I met a medium who was accurately able to “read” spirits through photographs. She read them with the image side face down and was spot on. Pick a field of science to be an expert within. I would be a biologist helping find cures to life threatening illnesses. What moment have you most wished you’d had a camera when you hadn’t? I was invited by a White House photographer to photograph Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration. When I arrived a day earlier, the photographer gave me a personal tour of the White House and introduced me to President Gerald Ford. Why wasn’t my camera with me? Choose a job you would be willing to do for free on the side. I would like to sing in a Broadway musical or cabaret. I love to sing but am one of those rare people who truly cannot carry a tune. Still, I sing.

Describe the most important photo you’ve seen. It’s a black and white photograph with strong light and shadow that shows emaciated people lying in crowded rows and rows of wooden bunks, four bunkers high floor to ceiling and no indication on how long the storage units of human beings continue. It seems endless. One bearded man, skin and bones, stands next to a wood pole to the right of the bunkers, holding a garment to cover his genitals. Most of the people too weak to do more than raise their head as they lay in the bunkers to look at the photographer. They are about to be liberated from the “little camp” in the Buchenwald Nazi Concentration Camp. This haunting photograph stands as proof of the Holocaust and human resilience. Never again is never again for anyone! How often do you take other people’s advice? When I seek another person’s advice I often listen and take it. Describe a personal hell. There are boxes of stuff in my basement from a move 15 years ago. I obviously don’t “need” what’s in them, yet I have go through them because I think there are vintage photographs, drawings, and personal nostalgic items in them. Those boxes are my “albatross.” My goal is to go through them this summer. Albatross be gone! On what occasion do you lie? I recently helped plan a surprise birthday party for a friend. I lied effectively to throw that person “off” when she thought her sister was “up to something”. In general, I do think “honesty is the best policy”. What was the last crime you witnessed? The only crime I ever witnessed was shoplifting. What is the best way to educate yourself? Stop, look, listen, research and keep trying. Take a course just for the fun of it. What is the next book you want to read? The book I plan to read next is “The Weight of Ink”, a novel by Rachel Kadish. Ultimate camera? The ultimate camera is a light weight, relatively compact medium format camera. It can use rolls of medium format film as well as capture, store and send large resolution medium format files digitally. It has standard F stops and shutter speeds instead of menus and submenus of digital readouts. The camera has a dedicated fool proof pop up or easy to carry and mount flash. That camera is sturdy, water proof and “Meryl Proof”, It must have a split image focusing screen. Most used camera? My most used and loved camera was the Graphlex Norita 66 I had from 1974 – 1981. It was stolen by an intruder in my classroom on the last day of school. I bought an identical model camera but it was never the same. That original camera and I were best friends and went everywhere together.

What object do you want? I’d like that ultimate camera. What object do you need? I am very fortunate and don’t need any specific object at this point and time. How would you explain the internet to someone from the 1950’s? You know that 1957 movie “Desk Set”? It’s a romantic comedy film starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Bunny Watson (Hepburn) and her colleagues are library reference clerks for a major TV station. People telephone Bunny and her colleagues to find out the answer to a myriad of questions, from the mundane to the complex. Bunny and her team will search through their own personal knowledge banks and huge library reference materials to find the answer. One of the internet’s capabilities are “search engines”; you have millions of Bunny’s and researchers at your beck and call 24/7. That’s just one of the capabilities of the internet. Are you satisfied with your level of physical strength? In general, I am satisfied with my physical strength. When the electric opener for the garage door gets stuck, I wish I were strong enough to lift the garage door manually. Describe a cheap thrill. Let’s go for an ice cream cone with candy sprinkles on it. Pick an historic moment from the last hundred years to bring a camera to. I would like to be the photographer on the Apollo 11 mission. Among the many highlights would be documenting the triumphant Neil Armstrong Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin exiting the lunar module Eagle and stepping on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. Which talent would you most like to have? I would like to be a talented singer. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? I’m currently in Woodstock, NY on a warm, sunny summer day. On my agenda for the next 24 hours:

1. Have lunch
2. Walk the dog
3. Deal with furniture in the basement
4. Go for a swim and walk the dog again
5. Pack and drive to Manhattan, NYC
6. Unpack the car and have dinner
7. Go to Bushwick, Brooklyn to meet with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire of Bizarre Publishing. Bizarre published my books “A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick” and “Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City”
8. Stay to enjoy and photograph tonight’s performances at Bizarre Bushwick.
9. Awake tomorrow for regular check-up appointments with internist and dentist and bring a camera in for a tune up.

Meryl Meisler was born 1951 in the South Bronx and raised in North Massapequa, Long Island, NY. Inspired by Diane Arbus and Jacques Henri Lartigue, Meryl began photographing herself, family, and friends while enrolled in a photography class taught by Cavalliere Ketchum at The University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1975, Meryl returned to New York City and studied with Lisette Model, continuing to photograph her hometown and the city around her. After working as a freelance illustrator by day, Meryl frequented and photographed the infamous New York Discos. As a 1978 CETA Artist grant recipient, Meryl created a portfolio of photographs which explored her Jewish Identity for the American Jewish Congress. After CETA, Meryl began a 31 year career as a NYC Public School Art Teacher.

Meisler has received fellowships and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, The Puffin Foundation, Time Warner, Artists Space, C.E.T.A., the China Institute and the Japan Society. Her work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Historical Society, Dia Art Foundation, MASS MoCA, the New Museum for Contemporary Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art and in public spaces including Grand Central Terminal, South Street Seaport and throughout the NYC subway system. Her work is in the permanent collections of the American Jewish Congress, AT&T, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Columbia University, Emory University, Islip Art Museum, and the Library of Congress, and can be found in the artist book collections of Carnegie Melon, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Chrysler Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, Metronome Library and Whitney Museum of American Art.

Upon retiring from the NYC public school system in 2010, Meisler began releasing large bodies of previously unseen work. Meryl’s first monograph A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick (Bizarre, 2014), received international acclaim. The book juxtaposes her zenith of disco photos with images of the burned out yet beautiful neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn in the 1980s. Her second book, Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City (Bizarre, 2015), contrasts intimate images of home life on Long Island alongside NYC street and night life.

Meryl lives and works in New York City, continuing the photographic memoir she began in 1973 – a uniquely American story, sweet and sassy with a pinch of mystery.

All images © Meryl Meisler / courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery


You can see more of Meryl Meisler’s work at: merylmeisler.com, purchase her latest books ‘A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick’ (here), and Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City’ (here). Meisler’s work has also been selected for THE FENCE, a large-scale traveling photography exhibition reaching over 6 million visitors annually through open-air exhibitions and will be 8 cities across North America: Brooklyn, Boston, Atlanta, Santa Fe, Durham, Denver, Calgary (Canada), and Sarasota.