Photography, The 70s, and Feminism: Meryl Meisler Internationally Acclaimed Artist
In the early days of Openletr, we alluded to Meryl Meisler in Dirty Disco: 3rd Ethos Gallery, The Third Place. “‘The disco ball is very significant in the way we see it on the dance floor…. it’s our sun, it sees everything, it reflects everything.’ As it happens, the disco ball is also an apt symbol for the neighborhood. As Meryl Meisler captured the Tale of Two Cities, in the late 70s, Bushwick was the epicenter of the disco culture, where party goers danced as the city burned.” Little did I know, a few months later, I got to work with Meryl on “Transfiguration,” an exhibition I curated and which included her black and white vintage photographs of the 70s: women as the subject and feminism as the theme. A large portion of Meryl’s published work figures icons such as high fashion models Grace Jones and Potassa de la Fayette. “I would see her at the clubs, Studio 54 and other places, and she would say ‘Meryl, I am Potassa,’ and she would throw herself down. Potassa was actually a favorite of Salvador Dalí. They would go everywhere. She was his muse.” As with many artists, self-portraiture is also a recurring practice throughout Meryl’s work, “making self-portraits right from the start came to me seamlessly, with no particular role model or inspiration for doing so. It was a gut instinct.”
Meryl Meisler is a legendary nightlife and street photographer, inspired by American photographer, Diane Arbus, known for creating equal representation of marginalized groups, and French photographer and painter, Jacques Henri Lartigue, famous for his photographs of Parisian lifestyle with a body of work on Parisian models. Meryl studied photography with Cavalliere Ketchum at The University of Wisconsin and Austrian-born American street photographer, Lisette Model, in New York City. Meryl photographed the infamous New York discos, and has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, The Whitney Museum, and the New Museum for Contemporary Art among others.
Upon retirement from a three-decade career as a NYC public school art teacher, Meryl began releasing previously unseen work, including two books, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City.
Fatima: Please tell us about your upbringing.
Meryl: I slept in Martha Washington’s bed, and my brother, Ken, in George Washington’s. Mom told us this, my earliest memory, South Bronx, circa 1951. It’s the beginning of my American story—sweet and sassy, with a pinch of mystery.
Lineage: My grandparents came from Eastern Europe to escape pogroms and persecution. It was the Great Depression and both families were poor. My dad, Jack Meisler, married Sylvia Schulman on furlough from the Coast Guard during WWII.
Postwar Prosperity: Mom helped dad start the Excel Printing Company. Thanks to the GI Bill, they bought a home on the site of a former Chinese vegetable farm in Massapequa, Long Island. Nearby, farmland rapidly gave way to housing developments, schools, shopping centers and highways as BOOM! The Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer offspring arrived.
Split level life: Dad commuted to The City six days a week. Sylvia became Sunny, a stay-at-home mom, who went back to work as we got older. I’m the middle child, with an older brother and younger brother. Sundays we drove to see family in The Bronx, or they came out to The Island. We’d also meet in The City to see the Rockettes or the circus. The Meislers helped found Congregation Beth El, they were Presidents of The Knights of Pythias, Pythian Sisters and Temple Sisterhood. Best of all, they co-founded The Mystery Club: eleven couples that went on adventurous outings to places like a haunted house, séance, nudist colony, and gay bathhouse.
Enrichments: Mom and dad gave us opportunities they didn’t have. I went to tap, ballet, ballroom dancing, piano, baton, horseback riding, beach clubs, Hebrew School, Temple Youth Group, 4H, Girl Scouts and camps. Family trips to Broadway musicals were the greatest treats of all.
(Excerpts from my essay in “Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City”)
Fatima: How did you get your start in photography?
Meryl: The love of photography is part of my heritage. My dad Jack, a printer by trade, was an avid photographer, as was his brother Al and their father Murray Meisler. Dad’s subject was our family; he documented all our life events and family gatherings. At 7, my parents gave me a 620-box camera. At my sweet sixteen, I got an Instamatic, and used that throughout my teens and in undergrad. In graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to use a “real camera.” Photography was commonplace in our family, I was just “taking it up a notch.”
Fatima: How was it for a woman in the 1970s to photograph at nightclubs?
Meryl: There were many other women photographing the nightclubs in the ’70s. Some of them, like Arlene Gottfried, were my friends. I took my cameras to the clubs, because I liked going clubbing and I liked taking photographs. To my delight, my photographs of the clubs, shown for the first-time decades later, are so well received.
Fatima: Have you ever been subjected to gender-based discrimination, harassment, or sexual violence?
Meryl: I feel very fortunate to have not been the subject of sexual violence. Professionally, I made my living as a public school teacher. Thanks to my union, The United Federation of teachers, my pay was determined by education and experience, not by gender. As an artist, there are a few times that stand out for feeling harassed or violated. While traveling in Europe with two women friends in 1972, we visited Museo El Greco in Toledo, Spain. Leaving the museum, the sun started going down. Dozens of townspeople started following us, cursing and throwing stones at us, because it was considered improper for unescorted women to be outside after dark. We beseeched a train worker to let us stay in the parked train for protection.
Once, while scuba diving, the dive master was pushing me forward underwater by inappropriately pushing my crotch from behind me. It’s not like I could question what he was doing while breathing oxygen through a scuba mask 50 feet below sea level and depending on him to get me back to the boat safely.
My parents were both loving and supportive of me and my brothers. My dad owned and operated Excel Printing Company in NYC. Both my brothers worked there on weekends and summers to earn their own money. I got jobs as a cashier in local department and grocery stores and baby-sitting. I was never allowed to work at Excel, it never even came up as an option, probably because it wasn’t considered appropriate for a girl. Ironically, as the future artist, I am the one who has the greatest affinity towards printing. I still have many of my dad’s favorite wood cuts, printing plates, and products from Excel.
Fatima: How would you describe feminism in the 70s?
Meryl: Growing up in the 1950s & ‘60s, women students weren’t allowed to wear pants to school during my elementary and junior high school, until I was a high school senior. I came of age during the feminist movement of the ‘70s. Bra burnings and Feminist Consciousness—raising groups were abounding. I didn’t burn any of my bras or join groups, but participated in many protests and marches. When I was 22 years old, I was introduced to my distant cousin, Barbara Rosner Seaman. She was a feminist, activist and author, who focused on Women’s Health Issues. Through Barbara, I met and was inspired by many other feminists, who were Barbara’s friends such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Erica Jong. If I hadn’t met all of these women, if Barbara Rosner Seaman hadn’t been part of my family, my life would have been very different—meeting her at 22 was a very important life shaper. She was a networker and always supported and elevated those around her. Barbara and her friends didn’t care that I was a school teacher, they loved my photography. True groundbreakers know the importance of being true to your voice and not allowing anything stopping you from being righteous.
Fatima: What are the main differences with our era?
Meryl: From my recollection, there was little or no recognition of transgender women in Feminist movements of the 1970s. In my opinion, feminism needs to be inclusive to the wider gender spectrum—children, teens and adults, who identify as women although their birth certificate may say otherwise. Feminism must welcome self-identifying women of all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and spiritualities and their allies. You don’t need to be female to be a feminist.
Today, there are more role models and opportunities for girls and women in various professions and “life styles.” Although the glass ceiling has cracks—it still stands solid over us. The Equal Rights Amendment, (ERA) designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex was introduced in 1921. The ERA has yet to be ratified. We still have a long way to go.
Fatima: What is an expression widely used in the 70s in New York to describe women?
Meryl: “Women’s Libber” was an expression used in the 1970s to describe a feminist, someone who sought and/or fought for Women’s Liberation. My mom considered herself a “Women’s Libber,” because she supported herself and made her own money.
Fatima: What is your work process, and how do you find inspiration?
Meryl: As a photographer, I don’t go specifically to photograph (unless on assignment). I photograph where I am. In most instances, I ask or gesture to request permission to take a person’s photograph. I also draw and paint. Photography is my strongest medium. I am inspired by beautiful light, walking, musical theatre, social gatherings, surprises, and adventures of daily life and laughter.
Fatima: Among your 1000s of vintage photographs, which one has been your favorite, and why?
Meryl: The self-portrait as a Girl Scout is among my favorites, because it truly expresses a lot about who I am. For the self-portrait, I attached my braids that had been cut off when I got my first “pixie haircut.” I was 10 years old and about to go to Girl School Camp. My mom saved the braids in a plastic bag. That’s my real Girl Scout uniform, sash, and handbook. I was and still am that Girl Scout, always trying on my honor to do my duty and do my best for G-d* and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey (my own determination of) the Girl Scout’s rules. I still have my Girl Scout’s uniform, handbook and braids. Someday, sooner than later, I will recreate the Girl Scout self-portrait.
Fatima: What kind of camera do you own, and why black and white photography?
Meryl: I currently own a Canon Mark III 5D, a Pentax 6x7 SLR, a Norita Graflex 2 ¼ SLR and my first camera—The Adventurer 620. Most often, I use the Pentax 6x7. The Graflex was out of order for two decades, and I just found someone who repairs them. I’m thrilled to have it back. I began shooting 35mm color slide film in the late 1970s, when my medium format, film camera, was in repair. Then, when I started teaching full-time and packed up my darkroom, I continued shooting with color film and later on digital media. Upon going through my archives and creating my first two books “A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick” and “Paradise & Purgatory SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City,” I fell back in love with the beauty of the black and white images, the details, and intensity of the medium format’s negatives. I started shooting medium format black and white films again, enrolled in “Introduction to Photography” classes to refresh my darkroom printing skills. I am now fully immersed developing and printing my work in the dark room and loving it.
Fatima: What are the top three things you would tell someone wanting to get a start in photography?
Keep notes of what you are photographing: important dates, places and people. I wrote it on my negative pages or slide boxes. You can jot it in your metadata or journal.
Make archival quality prints, sign, and save them. Before you know it, that work will be vintage.
Network and find a community of supportive people, who share information and opportunities. For decades, I’ve been a member of the Professional Women Photographers organization.
*G-d: An alternative spelling of God used by many jews as a form of respect.
Photograph courtesy of Meryl Meisler
Photographs from monographs: Purgatory & Paradise SASSY '70s Suburbia & The City (Bizarre, 2015),
and A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick (Bizarre, 2014)