Meryl Meisler revisits the start of her photography career when she moved to New York and reveled in the pleasures of the city’s decadent nightlife scene.
As a Baby Boomer coming of age in Massapequa, Long Island, in the 1950s and 1960s, Meryl Meisler enjoyed the picture perfect suburban American childhood. Her days were filled with Girl Scout meetings, piano lessons, twirling practice, and ballet class; on weekends, her family would take trips to New York City to catch a Broadway show. Glamour and theatricality filled her youth, setting the stage for things to come when she moved to Manhattan during the summer of 1975, after receiving her MA in Art from the University of Madison in Wisconsin.
Twenty-three of age, Meisler arrived in New York just as it was reaching the peak of decadence. The financial collapse of the city (as a result of the explosion in public spending), combined with the Sexual Revolution, the Gay Pride, and Women’s Liberation Movements to create the perfect storm: a playground for a new generation coming of age that could afford to work, live, and party in New York.
Meryl Meisler sublet a room from her cousin Elaine on the Upper West Side, in Manhattan. “I fell right in,” she remembers. “I was freelancing as an illustrator, making sporadic money, and photographing. I set up a darkroom in the laundry room and that was that. I loved meeting different kinds of people from different backgrounds. My cousins had a gallery in East Harlem that brought together poets, artists, and musicians of all ages. Elaine’s older sister, Barbara, was friends with journalist Betty Friedan and all the famous feminists of the day. I was going to parties with movers and groovers, then out dancing at a Latin club. I felt at home. Whoever I was, this was where I belonged.”
Moving effortlessly between scenes, Meryl Meisler carried a camera wherever she went, creating a kaleidoscopic portrait of New York at its most libertine. In the new exhibition, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times Meisler revisits legendary nightspots including Les Mouches, Xenon, CBGB, and GG Barnum’s Room drawn from her 2015 book Purgatory and Paradise: SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City. “There was a lot of creative energy happening,” Meisler says, looking back at the dawn of her photography career. “It felt like you could be anything and go any path.”
Runnin’ Pretty, New York City Girl
Determined to make the most of the city’s offerings, Mery Meisler auditioned for a class taught by celebrated photographer Lisette Model in fall 1975. “I brought a portfolio in with my Masters show. She picked up one of my photographs, showed it to everyone, and said, ‘You should show this to John Szarkowski,’” Meisler says, kvelling with joy at the memory.
“There weren’t a lot of people in the class, eight or less, including Suzanne Opton. You would put your work on the wall, and Lisette would read the images. She was always very positive. I showed a series of photographs I was making; the private joke was that there were Jewish American Princesses, but it was all different ethnicities. Lisette talked about how Jewish people were not allowed to go into the arts — they were forced to go into the trades. I remember her saying, ‘The People of the Book flourished when they were permitted to practice the arts.’ I felt empowered and encouraged.”
The following fall, Mery Meisler enrolled in a workshop at the school of the International Center of Photography and brought the house down when she whipped out her portfolio. “People went crazy to the point that Cornell Capa heard all the buzz and wanted to meet me,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “I’ve had an ‘almost’ career all my life.”
Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough
Although nothing came from her encounter with Capa (the Director at ICP), Mery Meisler was booked when the new year came around, securing an invitation from White House photographer Ricardo Thomas to attend the inaugural festivities for 39th President Jimmy Carter, in January 1977. At the same time, Meisler was taking a class with famed photojournalist Bob Adelman, who had recently published Gentleman of Leisure: A Year in the Life of a Pimp with writer Susan Hall, a lavishly illustrate expose documenting the life and times of Silky, a New York City-based pimp who defines himself as a professional gentleman of leisure.
Although Adelman was best known for his Civil Rights work, he was well connected in other ways, as Meisler would find out. “Bob had a strong reaction to my work,” she says. “He must have sense there was a wild woman inside of me, he let me know about the COYOTE Hooker’s Ball on Valentine’s Day. That was my first big disco experience and it was a blast! My life seemed like a whirlwind — I went from the White House to a sex workers ball to New Orleans for Mardi Gras the following week.”
But it wasn’t until the bus ride back to New York that Meryl Meisler’s life would change forevermore when she met Judi Jupiter, the woman destined to become a lifelong friend and partner in crime. “Judi was being very provocative on the bus,” Meisler remembers of her escapades. Intrigued, she approached Jupiter to ask if they might collaborate on a photography project for men’s magazines like Cheri and Swank, for which Meisler had been illustrating under an alias. Jupiter said yes, and a partnership was born, one that would take them to hot spots like CBGB and Studio 54, where they partied all night long.
Le Freak, C’est Chic
Over the next few years, Meisler amassed an extraordinary collection of photographs made as she went about her everyday life. Whether visiting Fire Island for a summer getaway or working as a hostess in a go-go bar, Meisler approached her subjects with a sense of love and reverence. The quintessential insider, Meisler documents the world with a knowing eye, celebrating the joy of simply being alive.
“There’s an undercurrent in certain places, like magic springs and healing waters,” Meisler says mysteriously, reflecting fondly on the energy that has bound her to New York for decades. “I never stopped enjoying it. The same qualities continue to excite me: people from all backgrounds. You can travel many worlds in 100 feet. You don’t have to fit into any one mold. There’s a place for you.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
"The Best of Times, The Worst of Times", Through July 23, 2021, Light Work, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, 316 Waverly Avenue Syracuse, NY 13244, USA. More information here.
Purgatory and Paradise: SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City, published by Bizarre, $45. Available here.