Meryl Meisler– an interesting lady. Hopefully she will not take this badly, but you just want her to be your, mum, aunt or just someone in your family. She emits this maternal warmth: It’s like a duvet on a cold night with a mug of hot chocolate. More importantly she feels like someone you could confide in knowing you would get sage advice while being confident that your trust in her would always be justified. It is that warmth that is evident in many of her images-after all as she stated to us-her images are in essence about capturing “happiness”.
#itchysilk got a chance to interview the 69-year old former teacher and we were stoked. We have been following her ever since one of our writers wrote a great piece on her detailing her latest book at the time A Tale Of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick (2014). In the piece our writer waxed lyrical about Meryl Meisler’s ability to capture moments in time. Indeed, for us she manages to capture those moments of ‘normality’ and make them special. In turn, she transports us back in time where it is possible to feel, hear, smell, and even taste New York City in all its visceral quality.
In her latest book New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco Meryl Meisler curates, another collection of amazing images capturing 70’s and 80’s New York in all its pomp. In our time with Meryl Meilser, we discuss her family’s influence on her journey into photography, visual diaries, and this latest stunning collection.
Mystery Club’ opens a world of infinite possibilities
I am proud to be Jewish. My dad Jack Meisler was a printer by trade; he was a passionate photographer whose subject was his family. My paternal grandfather Murray Meisler was a machinist. He was always using his camera and light meter on him. It didn’t matter that we didn’t see his photos. The act of photography was significant unto itself. At age seven, I got my first camera and photographed my family, friends, neighbors, school trips: the same subjects still intrigue and inform me today.
My parents, Sunny and Jack, belonged to a Mystery Club. Another “child of the Mystery Club,” Amy Leffler described it best in her essay for my book Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City.
‘The Mystery Club’ consisted of 11 couples that lived near each other, loved life, and knew how to have a good time. Every two months, on a Saturday night, they would meet at some predetermined location – the parking lot of May’s Department Store, in front of Waldbaum’s, Supermarket even in front of a cemetery. Sometimes they would carpool; sometimes, they would take a bus. No one knew where they were headed or what lay in store except the two couples whose turn it was to plan and host the evening. There was only one hard rule: no event could exceed $25 per couple, including food and entertainment. A week before, witty invitations went out telling people where to meet, how to dress, and whether they should eat beforehand, but never revealing the all-important “mystery.”
They went on fun adventures including: a haunted house, a séance, Nudist Colony, to see a performer at a gay male bathhouse, recording a vinyl LP. There were hayrides, cha cha lessons; trips to The Improv, supper clubs, even to a kosher deli where the Chinese waiters wore yarmulkes. Members learned how to fish for shrimp and lobsters in Sheepshead Bay, delved into handwriting analysis, glass blowing, pottery, hypnotism, bartending, and burlesque. Most of all, they shared laughter, good times, and the company of close friend.
The Mystery Club was influential on me as a young adult. They showed, by example, that the world of infinite possibilities and adventure can be at your fingertips practically around the corner if you are open-minded.
That “good old friend”
In the 1970’s, I used a Norita Graflex 2 ¼ SLR with a split image viewfinder, 55 mm lens, Vivitar 283 flash, and Tri-X 400 film. I used my Pentax 35mm SLR, 35mm lens, and the same flash and color slide film if that was in repair. While teaching in Bushwick, I was worried about being robbed, so I bought an early Canon Sure Shot point-and-shoot loaded with color slide film. The best camera is the one you have on you.
Over the years, my Norita stopped working in cold weather, and I could no longer find someone to repair it. I got a Pentax 6 x 7, used a variety of digital cameras as well. In 2019, I found someone just a few blocks from my apartment which could fix any camera- and got my Norita working again. It feels like being reunited with a good old friend. We always have a great time together.
Coming of age, to Bushwick
That period was my coming of age, emerging from youth into young adulthood. I had recently “come out” as lesbian, moved to “the greatest city in the world,” met creative people from all walks of life-it was a magical time.
I taught art in the NYC Public Schools from 1979 through to retirement in 2010. From 2011 – 2015 I supervised future art teachers enrolled at New York University. I photographed what I saw in the schools on my way to and from my job. In the case of Bushwick, where I taught from 1981 – 1994, little did I know that those snapshots would become so historical, cultural, and artistically significant. We are all witnesses to history. My largest yet-to-be-seen body of photograph will be uncovering 36 years of an insider’s point of view of NYC schools.
Creating an eternal Paradise
As a person ages, they come to know the loss of loved ones all too well. We are amidst the CoVid 19 health crisis, social upheavals, climate change, and endless challenges worldwide. Yet, I refuse to believe that Paradise is wholly lost. Never give up on hope. The words of Martin Luther King Jr. remind us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I worked with Jean Stéphane Sauvaire, a French filmmaker who helped me edit and sequence New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco (Parallel Pictures Press). He published my first two books, A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick (Bizarre Publishing 2014), Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City (Bizarre Publishing 2015). I met him when he moved to Bushwick, and he was interested in learning more about his new neighbourhood.
He discovered my photos online and met me at my 2012 exhibit at The Living Gallery during Bushwick Open Studios. Jean realized he couldn’t commit fully to publishing the new book due to the pandemic and the need to focus on his film projects. It was a fantastic process, and we were able to make the images read dynamically from front to back, back to front, side by side, alternating pages, and upside down. We worked vigorously on this book, before and during the pandemic, and think it is our best.
Photography, “fine wine” and success.
Success is in the eye of the beholder. Fine photography, like fine wine, often ages well with time. There is also the good fortune factor of many fantastic people who opened invisible doors for me. Time and distance helped me with editing and understanding my work. Having the opportunity to focus full-time on my art career is a great advantage of retiring from a full-time job. I have lots of projects coming up.
EYESHOT will be publishing my next monograph, consisting of street photos from 1973 – 2021 I also have another book about cultural hots spots around the USA in the 1970s and 1980’s which is in the pre-planning stages. Ultimately, I’ve never stopped taking photographs. It’s an ongoing visual diary that I am editing from the earliest work in the 1970s and moving forward.