Meryl Meisler's dazzling portrait of New York hedonism in the 1980s
Four decades later, Meryl has begun sharing her archive of incredible images.
Meryl’s Hand Prints on JudiJupiter on Man Wearing White, Studio 54, 1977
In 1975, at the tender age of 23, Meryl Meisler arrived in New York City to study with legendary photographer Lisette Model. The Long Island native quickly found herself at home living amid the dazzling display of a city that evoked the refrains of Paradise Lost, John Milton's 1667 epic poem chronicling the fall of man. Everywhere she turned, scenes of ecstasy, pandemonium and redemption unfolded with cinematic flair, beckoning her to photograph its rapturous days and nights.
In a new book and exhibition, New York PARADISE LOST: Bushwick Era Disco, Meryl chronicles the hedonistic nightlife scene of the late 1970s and pairs it with images of Bushwick in the 1980s as it struggled to recover from the plague of "benign neglect", wherein the Federal government systemically denied financial support to Black and Brown communities nationwide.
Landlords hired arsonists to torch their buildings to collect insurance payouts, prompting Howard Cosell to allegedly proclaim, "There it is ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning" during Game 2 of the 1977 World Series. Entire city blocks were reduced to rubble while abandoned buildings were boarded up. The city was cheap, run-down and dangerous -- attracting the kind of fearless devotee that defines the heroic spirit of New York. Teetering along the edge of bankruptcy, $453 million in debt, the city became a cauldron of creativity, unleashing hip hop, punk, and disco before the decade ended.
"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven," Satan proclaims in Paradise Lost, a sentiment befitting the city's gritty glory. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the civil rights, women's and gay liberation movements, a new generation came of age revelling in the libertine pleasures. Clubs like Studio 54, Copacabana, GG's Barnum Room, and Les Mouches offered the ultimate escape: a night of freedom, fantasy, and decadence.
When Meryl hit the scene, she began channelling the spirit of Brassaï in her photography. In 1976, the famed French photographer finally published his photographic memoir, The Secret Paris of the 30s, detailing his youthful adventures through the city's underground brothels and opium dens. "I sensed I was living in my own secret world and brought my camera along," Meisler says. "I didn't realise some of the people I photographed were notoriously famous. Potassa de la Fayette was just Potassa. I didn't know she was a high fashion model who hung out with Salvador Dalí. I asked her name, and she told me 'Potassa' -- then fell on the floor for dramatic effect!"
Working as a freelance illustrator for clients such as The New York Times and Scholastic, and as a CETA photographer documenting Jewish New York, Meryl supplemented her income by working as a hostess at midtown Manhattan go-go bars like the Playmate, Winks and the Magic Carpet. As the decade came to an end, Meryl secured a per-diem teaching position through Learning to Read Through the Arts, a program founded in 1971 that brought artists into New York public schools to help improve literacy.
The week before Christmas 1981, Meryl began working as a full-time art teacher at Roland Hayes Intermediate School 291 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. As she got off the train and surveyed the decimated landscape, Meryl thought of the words her cousin, a video editor at NBC's Beirut office, used to describe what she witnessed during the Lebanese Civil War.
Meryl soldiered up the block and entered the school. "In any middle school, there's an air of insanity, frenetic adolescents, but it was multiplied by the situation," she says. "The building itself was never completed and didn't have a certificate of occupancy, but the principal in the midst of this chaos was wearing a suit and tie, a real gentleman. It was like a M*A*S*H episode."
Although running a classroom was not Meryl's forte, she earned the students' respect with her artistic abilities. "Art was very appreciated," she says. "I could teach them to do a realistic portrait or calligraphy, and I respected their graffiti." In 1987, Meryl secured a job running a new photography program at the school to help students at risk of dropping out. "Over night, I was given the opportunity to place an order for over $10,000," she says, still in awe. "I could order anything I wanted! I was in the desert and manna came from the sky."
Despite the fact that Meryl made an extraordinary body of work, she did not consider her photographs to be art until she began to make books in 2014. It just so happened she found herself back in Bushwick, some two decades after she left, just as the neighbourhood was becoming the centre of the Brooklyn art scene. Inspired, Meryl returned to the darkroom for the first time in years.
"I feel like I am printing the pictures the way I always dreamed, if I never had to get a day job and work -- if I was a rich girl," Meryl says, unconsciously evoking the strains of the 1971 classic Fiddler on the Roof. "It wasn't until recently that I appreciated my photographs as energy, beauty, life. I didn't understand it then, but I do now."
Meryl Meisler: PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco opens June 3 at ClampArt, New York, and runs through July 9, 2021, and Center for Photography at Woodstock from July 1– August 15, 2021. Book signings will be held on June 5 at ClampArt and July 3 and 4 at CPW. The book is published by Parallel Picture Press.
All images Meryl Meisler courtesy of ClampArt