“So, did I answer your question?”
At 70, listening to photographer Meryl Meisler discuss the evolution of Bushwick could stand alone as its own history course. Her interview consisted of one question (“how did your latest show come about?”) because she only needed one prompt. Like her work, she knows exactly how to tell a story.
When you first glimpse the selection of 22 photos displayed at Chelsea’s ClampArt in Meisler’s latest show, New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco, identifying an immediate visual map feels slightly daunting. After all, what exactly connects silver-splattered genitals and a group of slouched students? The easy answer, of course, is Meisler herself.
“I don’t go to photograph,” Meryl Meisler says of how she has always approached her work. “I photograph where I’m going.” Her latest show spans her life in New York from the 1970s to the early 1990s and orbits two distinct worlds: her life as a public school teacher and a New Yorker immersed in disco nightlife. Over the course of time, these two worlds interacted to inspire Meisler’s visual diary of Bushwick, Brooklyn. For an observer, the photographer’s love affair with Bushwick has four distinct moments.
In 1977, Meryl Meisler took a bicycle ride with her friend Judi Jupiter to the legendary Studio 54 for a private party— another evening of capturing nightlife through her plastic lens. The next morning, she says “the world heard about a place called Bushwick,” thanks to a blackout that furthered the damage of a vulnerable neighborhood. At the time, from where Meisler was standing, this was a sector of urban decay that starkly contrasted her disco romance with Manhattan.
In 1981, Meryl Meisler was assigned to teach full-time in Bushwick. Suddenly, she was immersed in the humanity of a neighborhood the whitewashed tabloids had previously written off. Over the course of her 13 years there, photography became her tool for classroom management and positive reinforcement. She even began teaching photography for dropout prevention.
In 2007, a fellow teacher approached Meryl Meisler; in his pursuit of Bushwick records, he felt stunted by archives that only centered the Bushwick blackout. As he asked folks about where to find more nuanced looks at Bushwick life, he was immediately told to contact Meisler— “she was always taking pictures.” And in the same vein that one rediscovers their history when reading their middle school journals, Meisler was pleasantly surprised by— and consequently became obsessed with— the boxes and boxes of slides she retrieved from her basement. Her selects spanned years of a world, at that time and now, overrun by gentrification and whiteness.
In 2013, in the bathroom of a Bushwick burlesque club called BIZARRE, a single disco ball caught Meryl Meisler’s eye, catalyzing an epiphany of sorts: over the course of 30 or so years, the neighborhood known for its blackout had evolved into an offshoot of a 70s Manhattan disco scene. Having built upon her obsession of photographs unearthed only five years earlier, Meisler’s vision of two worlds coalescing— an ornate, drag Manhattan with a post-Blackout Bushwick—came to life. ClampArt is merely showcasing a selection of what manifested from this lightbulb: Meisler’s new acclaimed book New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco.
“They are intertwining strands of the same story,” says Meisler of how she recognizes a thread between Andy Warhol out on the Upper West Side and five Bushwick kids fixing a bike together. Again, what binds these storylines is a perspective from Meisler that injects humor and affirms life. In the same way Meisler chose not to photograph the pain of a Manhattan in mourning during the AIDS crisis, she did not capture Bushwick as a neighborhood ruined.
Instead, Meryl Meisler, like many of us, fell in love with New York and simply showed the world what beautiful people lie within it.
By Abigail Glasgow
Abigail Glasgow is writer based in New York, USA, and storyteller who believes in providing a platform for marginalized groups and individuals who have been historically and systemically excluded from opportunity.
An exhibition of related works by Meryl Meisler is currently on view at The Center for Photography at Woodstock. More information here.