Meryl Meisler turned heads last year with her photographs of Bushwick in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the neighborhood was racked by arson, economic crisis, and crime, epitomized in the chaos of the 1977 blackout. Nevertheless, her photos were filled with as much liveliness as the dance floor at Studio 54 (which the photographer also documented). As a local school teacher, Meisler saw beyond the blight, connecting with the community in spite of the neighborhood’s troubles. But her photos are just as much a conduit for nostalgia as they are a memo for the present and seem as relevant as ever for the neighborhood as it continues to go through immense change. Now our initial obsession the photographer’s work has been rewarded with a new book, Purgatory & Paradise: Sassy ’70s Suburbia & the City.
Meisler was born in the Bronx, but her family moved to the suburbs of Long Island shortly after. Though the burbs seem like a long way from the city, Long Island was not a place of isolation for Meisler’s family. “We were very close with my maternal family and religiously we would go to the Bronx on Sundays or they would come to us,” she recalled. “I was fortunate enough to belong to a family that didn’t just stay in Long Island. The city and the connection to Long Island was an ongoing theme in my life.”
This comes through loud and clear in Meisler’s new book, out via Bushwick’s own Bizarre Publishing. The photographs, taken between 1974 and December 1979, capture a manic energy particular of the time period. And it’s not just relegated to wild parties in the city. Even in the burbs nearly everyone is smiling, joking, laughing, or somehow enjoying the interaction with the photographer. For Meisler, Long Island was a place of colorful, kitschy comfort, somewhere safe enough to goof off, while the city was a place of liberation and excitement. “I loved the contrast. I grew up in Massapequa, but I loved being in a place where I met all kinds of people,” she recalled.
And while the Long Island subjects in particular can look silly with their teased-out hair and love for all things gaudy and carpeted, Meisler isn’t laughing at them, she’s laughing with them. It’s almost weird seeing a depiction of the suburbs like this, particularly in comparison to the city, because what we’re used to seeing in the arts is the portrayal of suburban America as embodying unfeeling banality and blind conformity. But Meisler definitely owes the likability of her subjects to her relationship with them: they were all people who she knew “very well.”“This is literally my immediate family or very close cousins, my lifelong friends on the block, people I went to high school with, my mother’s colleagues at work. I didn’t have to step out far, I just really wanted to go into the present time, photographing what was and what is,” she explained. “And some of them, they’re like second sets of parents to me. They are all very funny people with a tremendous sense of humor. ”
In A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, which includes images of Bushwick from around 1981 and ones of Manhattan from 1977 through the early ’80s, the photos are most definitely taken by someone who lives two very different lives. By day, Meryl was a schoolteacher living and working in Bushwick; at night, a very different Meryl emerged, a woman who had come out both in the queer sense and in a literal sense. She danced alongside drag queens and disco babes, hung out at CBGB, and partied at least in the proximity of cocaine. “These were things I was doing,” she said matter-of-factly.
So the contrast between the two worlds isn’t a manufactured one. “The photos aren’t Bushwick versus the city, it’s more about the two places being side by side,” she explained. As the title makes clear, the photos in A Tale of Two Cities depict an economically divided city, which our own present-day New York City is increasingly surpassing as income inequality rises. Page by page, we move through the flashy interiors of dance clubs and bombed out buildings. The landscapes are certainly disparate, but the two groups have more in common than the dichotomy implies. As Meisler mentioned, people were surprised to find that Bushwick residents could find happiness amongst all the awful crap happening in their neighborhood.
Since Meisler was so close with her neighbors and students, who in turn became her subjects, her photos are far from some problematic anthropological study of the ghetto. There’s real life here and the photographer is connected to it.
Meisler explained that the impetus for her new book came from the response she received about Tale of Two Cities. “A lot of people talked about the fact that people [in the photos] are smiling, having fun, and here they are in this very bad environment. I realized it’s my past, it’s my upbringing, it’s where I’m coming from that made me photograph that way,” she said. “It’s a photographic memoir. I needed to bring it back to explain where I’m coming from.”
In Sassy ’70s, we meet a much younger Meryl. “I wanted to learn how use a real camera,” she explained of her decision to take a photography course as a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin.
She’d recently seen the Diane Arbus show at MoMA. “I think it was ’73, and it really moved me– these are photographs of real people, and they are very real settings– they just seemed to speak to me, look into my soul, something,” she laughed.
Meisler began posing herself in proto-Cindy Sherman-style self-portraits, but eventually began to see her family as worthy subjects after being exposed to the work of French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue. “He grew up in this aristocratic family in Paris,” Meisler said. “These are photographs of his family and they’re in these costumes and they are just really having a ball, just really being a family and friends and goofing off.”
She returned home for summer break and embarked on what would become a two-year long series of her family and friends in Long Island. Comfort with a camera came easy for Meisler, and she found that her subjects weren’t shy either. “Photography was part of what we did, taking pictures, the family album,” she said. “My Dad always had a camera, a serious one with a light meter. My aunts and uncles were always taking pictures, it was really the norm.”
After returning to Madison, Meisler processed the photos for class and pretty much blew her professor’s mind. “I showed the teacher the contact sheets and he goes, ‘What is this?!’ And I go, ‘What do you mean, what is this? This is where I come from,’” she laughed. “You know, he’d photographed Native Americans in New Mexico, and he said, ‘Well I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a whole different world.’’
Understandably, to an outsider and especially a Midwesterner, the over-the-top expressiveness of Meisler’s large Jewish family might seem pretty foreign or simply just weird. But whereas Diane Arbus had a knack for highlighting the strangeness in people living on the fringes, Meisler can make almost anyone seem both singular and familiar, suburbanites and tough guys alike.
Meisler moved to New York City almost immediately after graduating in 1975. She set up a darkroom in her apartment and started living the nightlife, going out to discos, underground parties, and punk clubs. Once again she was photographing a scene of which she was a part– drag shows, CBGB, and Studio 54 all appear in her photos– while still spending time with her parents in Long Island.
The photos she took at this time, which make up the bulk of Sassy ’70s, capture the moment of Meisler’s coming of age. “It was also a time in my life when I was coming out, so I was awkward and questioning and wondering really what I wanted to do,” she recalled. In a way, her personal experiences paralleled those of the city’s: both struggle and a burst of intense energy propelled by a sense of freedom.
Eventually Meisler would come out. “When I got rid of my darkroom, it was because my girlfriend moved in, I fell in love,” she explained. But Meisler continued taking photos.
She writes in Sassy ’70s: “The gay and feminist movements were in full swing. People could be straight, gay, bi – anything they wanted to be. […] I photographed the streets by day and the hottest clubs at night, then developed the film, and filed the negatives away in plastic sleeves.”
At this time, Meisler’s creativity was overflowing and benefitting from the new people and experiences she was exposed to. “My cousins were feminists and I met all these musicians and artists, it was very exciting,” she recalled. Some photos are so wild that Meisler admitted, “Some of the stuff I didn’t think I could ever show– I was photographing what I was seeing and loving and enjoying in the city.”
“I was in my roaring 20s, it was really great to be in New York City. It didn’t matter to me that it was going through its own crisis, because I felt comfortable with that,” she said. “I wanted to keep the book in the ’70s because it was an important era not just in my life, but it was also before the world changed. It was a very particular period that I think was unique and it was also me becoming a grownup or a grown-child, whatever you wanna call it.”
Sometimes the two worlds collide. Take the photos of Fire Island. “I took some outrageous pictures from there. It was a very wild gay scene,” she recalled. In one photo, a pair of boyish skinny guys are standing on the beach wearing nothing but necklaces, squinting from the sun but letting it all hang out. They don’t look the slightest bit shy.
“I grew up in the Girl Scouts and I remember doing an overnight trip on Fire Island and the other girls saying, ‘Look, there are little houses with names like Shirley Temple, and there are fairies there!’ And I was like, ‘I wanna see the fairies!'” Meisler laughed. “But I didn’t do it until many years later.”
Meisler said this particular time period was the moment right before “a dark cloud” cast a shadow over everything. “We had an epidemic, AIDS. You didn’t know it, but something was about to explode that would devastate a generation and the world.”
Through her photos, Meisler comes across as an incredibly open-minded person, and talking with her on the phone made this clear. She encountered all kinds of people with her camera– white suburban dads with closely cropped hair and beer guts, a dapper black man sitting on the subway in a pinstriped suit, feathered fedora, and platform shoes, punks, old Jewish grandmothers, drag queens– but each person she seems to regard as an old friend.
Meisler’s photographs certainly pull at nostalgia strings, but maybe the reason why they’re so compelling is because they were taken by someone who felt so deeply connected to her subjects and what they represented. “This is who I am,” she explained.