Manic Need and Human Perseverance: A Photographer Looks Back

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Meryl Meisler in 2014; photo by Catherine Kirkpatrick

When Meryl Meisler came to Bushwick to teach art in 1981, it was not hot. There were no galleries, hip bars, or trendy stores. The area had been the center of arson and looting during the 1977 blackout, and burnt-out buildings and rubble stretched for blocks on end. There was redlining by banks and corrupt housing schemes. Landlords torched their own property for insurance money and unemployment was high. A sense of desolation and gloom hung over the streets.

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Foundation, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, June 1982; all photos by Meryl Meisler

But Meisler was captivated by the people and the light, and she began taking pictures on her way to and from the train with a cheap point and shoot camera. By the time she left in 1994, she had accumulated a body of work that, after a spell in the basement, was shown at The Brooklyn Historical Society (2007), Soho Photo Gallery (2012), and The Living Gallery (2012 and 2013). She was mentioned in the New York Times and became known as “the Legendary Bushwick Photographer.”

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Muscle Boy and The Little Rascals of Palmetto Street, May 1982

But there is a secret body of work that came before Bushwick: a raw, up-close look at the 1970s phenomenon known as disco. Emerging first as a music trend, disco combined danceable, electronically enhanced sound with sexed-up lyrics and vocals. Celebrating pleasure and fun, it seeped into the general culture, reaching its peak in 1977 with the film Saturday Night Fever.

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Two 4 One Muscles, Les Mouches, NY, NY, May 1978

Meisler was born in the Bronx and raised in Massapequa, Long Island. After earning her MA at the University of Wisconsin, she returned to New York in 1975 and fell in love with the city. “I immediately knew that this is where I belonged and wanted to call home…forever,” she said. With a friend, she began to photograph the wild nightlife, gaining entre to the most famous club of all—Studio 54.

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Liberace’s Protégée, Les Mouches, NY, NY, April 1978

On May 30, 2014, Bizarre Black Box Gallery will pair these bodies of work in a show titled A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick. On the surface, it seems an unlikely mix. Meisler’s Bushwick images are filled with scarred streets and ravaged buildings. Strange objects—carburetors and mangled toys—spill onto the sidewalks, as people pick their way through the debris, struggling to survive. Yet despite the chaos, there is a sense of normalcy: Mothers push strollers, kids play, teens hang out.  By contrast, The disco pictures present highly artificial environments, with opulent sets and glittering people doing wild and crazy things. Costumes are flamboyant and luxurious; drugs flow freely. Pleasure, not basic survival, is the main concern.

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Prom Queen Contender, Les Mouches, NY, NY, June 1978

Meisler understood the differences and “used a medium format camera with B&W film…and flash to photograph disco” and “an inexpensive point and shoot with cheap color slide film and natural light to photograph Bushwick.”  While most club photographers tracked celebrities, she focused on the small-scale dramas and empty aspirations of the age: the masses of ordinary people struggling to get in, striving to be noticed, hoping to matter in some way. She catches the desperate edge of the revelry, the need inside to forget the dark clouds gathering outside: soaring crime, municipal bankruptcy, and a strange disease, yet unnamed, that had begun to make its way into the gay community.

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The DJ Booth at 4AM, Studio 54, NY, NY, August 1977

There have been other bodies of work and many honors, including a CETA Artists Grant, a Fellowship in Photography from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and an Earthwatch Award. But the Bushwick and disco images came from her heart. “I wasn’t on assignment,” she said. “I was taking note of and appreciating the incredible world in which we live.”

Together these very personal bodies of work paint an intimate and telling portrait of the time. Whatever its problems, New York City is a far more peaceful place today than it was thirty years ago. Bushwick is home to hundreds of artists and galleries, with thousands flocking to the annual Bushwick Open Studios. Meisler’s photographs take us back to a grittier time, reminding us of the positive turn the city has taken in recent years. Maybe she saw it coming. If the disco pictures exude a manic need to perform and forget, in ruined Bushwick she found signs of hope and human perseverance.

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Roller Skates, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, Circa 1984

She is humbled by her own journey. The Bushwick slides remained in her basement until 2007 when historian Adam Schwartz came calling, and the disco images have never been shown. “I am beyond grateful,” she said, “to the extended Bushwick community for their warm response to my work and welcoming me as part of BOS. I taught art in Bushwick and now Bushwick inspires me to be an artist.”

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A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick runs May 30—September 10, 2014, at Bizarre Black Box Gallery, 12 Jefferson Street. There will be a Disco Night Opening Reception on Friday, May 30, 7PM—4AM, with performances and special events throughout the weekend. A monograph of Meisler’s work will be published in conjunction with the show

Profile photo of Catherine Kirkpatrick

Author: Catherine Kirkpatrick

Writer and photographer. Wrote intros for Meryl Meisler's two books. Had solo show at NYC's FRONT Art Space last fall. Creating an oral history called Voices and Visions: Making Photographs in the Digital Age.