June 28, 2021
NEW YORK PARADISE LOST: BUSHWICK ERA DISCO
IN CONVERSATION WITH MERYL MEISLER
Photography by Meryl Meisler
Interview by Melanie Meggs
In a new book and exhibition, New York PARADISE LOST: Bushwick Era Disco, New York street photographer Meryl Meisler chronicles the hedonistic nightlife scene of the late 1970s and pairs it with the daylight images of those who loved and thrived in a burnt-out Bushwick in the 1980s. Meryl documents a tumultuous time in the city’s history, marred by epidemics of crime, addiction, and AIDS, intensified by a paralyzing blackout and political and economic crises.
Meryl’s effervescent photographs are a personal memoir - love letters filled with compassion, humour, and angst as well - kept secret for decades until she retired from teaching. Meryl was headed to Studio 54 the night of the ’77 blackout, and the next day, she and the world first heard of Bushwick - a troubled neighbourhood where fires and looting had erupted. Much later, in 2013, at Bizarre (a Bushwick drag/burlesque nightclub), Meryl noticed a disco ball in the restroom along with another one above the dance floor. This was an epiphany. Bushwick was now the sizzling club scene, and in her mind the disparate worlds of Bushwick and disco collided, becoming intertwined strands of New York City’s story and her own journey. This is when Meryl realised her photographs of Manhattan nightlife and Bushwick daylight belonged together.
Meryl was born in 1951 in the South Bronx and raised in North Massapequa, Long Island, New York. Inspired by photographers such as Diane Arbus and Jacques Henri Lartigue, as well as her father, Jack, and grandfather, Murray Meisler, Meryl began photographing herself, family, and friends while enrolled in a photography class taught by Cavalliere Ketchum at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1975, Meryl returned to New York City and studied with Lisette Model, continuing to photograph her hometown and the city around her. While working as a freelance illustrator by day, she frequented and photographed the infamous New York discos by night. As a 1978 C.E.T.A. Artist grant recipient, Meryl created a portfolio of photographs that explored her Jewish identity for the American Jewish Congress. Then, Meryl began a three-decade career as a NYC Public School Art Teacher.
Upon retiring from the New York City public school system in 2010, Meryl began releasing large bodies of previously unseen work. She continues to live and work in New York City, working on the photographic memoir she began in 1973. Meryl's street photographs are her own unique American story. They radiate joy, but do not shy away from contrasting this with a background of hardship.
In this interview we are delighted to speak to Meryl about her first steps into photography, her time as a school teacher, how she got into the disco scene, her inspirations, and working and living during this challenging period of Covid-19.
"If I saw something interesting on the street on my way to where I was going, I'd pause to photograph it. In retrospect, I didn't go to photograph. I photographed where I was going."