It was the best of times; it as the worst of times. New York City in the 1970s was a world unto itself, a world that was both burdened by poverty and government neglect, and burgeoning with culture and art. For many who lived through this time, it was something more than that. It was a time before AIDS. A time before crack. And a time before the Internet.
New York City in the 1970s was a place that was so ripe, it was all but ready to burst. The city streets was derelict and desolate, yet never without heart. The city’s nightclubs like Studio 54 were a study in life lived according to the bon mot, après moi le deluge. Combined together, they revealed both a joie de vivre and quiet despair that only comes when you live on edge of existence in the present tense.
Photographer Meryl Meisler recently released A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick (Bizarre Publishing), a deeply felt compendium of days and night in the city that never sleeps. Taken together, the juxtaposition of Meisler’s work reads as pure and unfettered delight. Despite the pain of poverty and the dissolution of that it may cause, Meisler’s Bushwick shows us the heroism of the human spirit and its undeniable resilience. Meisler speaks with The Click about her days and nights in New York, where the camera became her passport to documenting the city as it stood at that time.
Meisler recalls, “I was born in the South Bronx, 1951, second child of Sunny (Schulman) and Jack Meisler, and moved to Massapequa, Long Island, at age two-and-a-half. However, my extended family lived in the Bronx. My maternal grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin lived on same block as each other on Morris Avenue near 169 Street.
“The Bronx of the 1950s/60s had rolling grass and concrete, it was fascinating to me. I loved the hilly tree lined streets and the parks and playgrounds were great. When we would go to visit my maternal grandparents Mama Ida (Rothstein) and Papa Meyer Schulman were usually seated out front of their apartment building on milk crates, chatting with neighbors. Papa always wore a suit, and mama a dress, though they sat outside on milk crates. Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Lou Forkash were usually nearby. They had lots of friends nearby who were close and doted over us when we visited.
“Grandma Elizabeth (Suplinsky) and Grandpa Murray Meisler lived near the elevated subway. This too was amazing. In the warm weather, Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Lou would take us to their beach club on Orchard Beach. Mama’s sister, Great Aunt Dana, had a huge apartment on the Grand Concourse with a sunken living room. Aunt Rita and Uncle Leo Meisler lived in a limited equity co-op apartment and it had the cleanest, shiniest floors. Despite the police locks on doors, the Bronx felt like a safe place to me, to them.
“The action of photography is profound, whether or not the photo is ever seen. Grandpa Meisler, a machinist, always had a rangefinder and light meter on him, and used them. It’s said he built a tintype camera and photographed street life in early twentieth-century South Bronx. No one saw the photographs or knows where they are.
“Grandma and Grandpa took my brothers Ken, Mitch and I to the Bronx Zoo. I brought along my ‘Adventurer’ 620 box camera and photographed the lions at the zoo, conscious of the beautiful light. Dad was a great photographer whose subject was his family. I have all his photos and negatives and Grandpa’s cameras. I asked Dad’s last surviving sibling, Uncle Al, who was a mechanic and avid photographer, about Grandpa’s photos and suicide, and his own photographs. He didn’t know where Grandpa’s photos were. As for his own, he threw them away while downsizing. My uncle gave me a formal photographic portrait of my great grandmother Fanny (Rosner) Suplinsky, and he passed away a few weeks later. The passion for the action of photography is in my DNA.
“Dad owned Excel Printing Co. NYC, he was commercial letterpress and offset printer with an eagle eye. Mom was a ‘head hunter’. They worked very hard to enable their children to be the first generation to have a college education. The homes on the block looked basically the same on the exterior; the interiors were another story. My parents and their friends belonged to a Mystery Club. While on grad school break, I began photographing my family, the Mystery Club members, and my childhood friends back home. The photography professor Cavalliere Ketchum could not get over the ornately decorated interiors that looked like stage sets. He kept asking, ‘Who are these people? I have never seen anything like this!’ I explained, this is where I come from and these are my family and friends.
“Going back to the South Bronx, specifically Morris Avenue, in 1978 for my CETA American Jewish Congress grant, the street was totally familiar, but the people were different. The synagogue was now a church. Yiddish was no longer the second language. I didn’t see too many people on the street, other than some young gang members, ‘The Savage Outlaws’, who were hanging around. I photographed them. I honestly didn’t find it frightening, though it did seem less ‘green’ and streets dirtier than years before. There were some boarded up apartments and graffiti, but the area was predominantly occupied, whereas the Bushwick I visited in 1981 was truly in shambles.
“Upon graduation, I moved to New York and continued the black-and-white medium format series while studying with Lisette Model. I knew that Lisette Model taught a class at Parsons/The New School and wanted to study with her because of her reputation as a great teacher as well as artist and she was Diane Arbus’ mentor. You needed to be interviewed and show a portfolio to Lisette in order to be admitted to her class. I brought in my portfolio of Jewish Long Island Family and Friends. Lisette loved the work, she held up a print of a friend’s mother and grandmother for everyone else waiting to be interviewed to see and said something like, ‘You should show your photographs to John Szarkowsi.’ (I was and still am shy. I never showed my work to him).
“Lisette had us bring in new work every week, pin it on the wall and hold critiques, much conducted by her own commentaries with her exotic European accent. In reaction to my documenting Jewish life in LI, she spoke from a place deep in her heart. She said things like, ‘These are the people of the book who were forbidden to be artists for centuries. Now there are so many great Jewish artists and photographers because they are people of the book—people who were forbidden to enter certain trades like the arts (because of discrimination, anti-Semitism).
“Lisette was elegant, sharp, with a penetrating eye that projected exacting hint of deep listening/thinking/seeing and understanding. She always wore red lipstick and a dark outfit (top and skirt) with a patch of color—around two-inch square patch of color pinned to her top, either toward the left or right collarbone. I might have been the one in the class who asked about the color swatch. Lisette said the color was chosen daily by her husband who was a painter. This seemed very romantic to me. She spoke of him with love and respect.
“Lisette Model and Cornell Capa loved and encouraged my work documenting my family and friends. For pure personal joy, I photographed street life by day and my adventures in the city’s hottest discos at night; developed the film, cut them up to place in negative sleeves and file away. I never showed the street life and disco photos.
“Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was fantastic to me. The city was going through an immense fiscal crisis. The streets were filling with people now living on the streets, former residents of mental institutions, not because they were ‘cured’ but for cost cutting reasons.
“At the time, I was in transition chaos myself, so it felt just right. My parents had just separated after 36 years of marriage; I had ‘come out’ to myself and family just a few months ago; I didn’t know whether to go back to University of Wisconsin to finish my MFA (I had an MA) or if I could make a living as a freelance illustrator and pursue my photography interests.
“My Rosner and Drucker cousins were amazing, introducing me to their friends and family of artists, musicians, writers, feminists, intellectuals and down to earth people. I grew up in a Caucasian community; now I was hanging out in East Harlem, Lower East Side, with Latinos, African Americans, Asians and the full potpourri of New York.
“I was still pretty shy. I would ‘bum a cigarette’ off strangers. As soon as I had enough money to buy my own cigarettes I realized I really didn’t like cigarettes, it was just a way of talking to strangers. Carrying a camera and photographing people I met became my cigarette substitute.
“In 1977, I started going to the punk clubs and discos. The feminist movement was in full swing. People could be straight, gay, bi, anything and be out and be themselves or whoever they wanted to be. It was the glitter glistening as light hit shards of glass. Mardi Gras in Manhattan. But that is only hindsight. At the time, I felt like I was living, witnessing my version of the exotic nightlife that Brassai witnessed and lived in Paris of the 1930s. It was my time.
Flash forward to 2012. Meisler continues, “A stranger with a French accent who recently moved to Bushwick came to the ‘Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 1980s,’ exhibition, exclaiming love of my photographs. A year later Vanessa Mártir (my writing collaborator) and I took a break from the 2013 edition of the show to have refreshments at Bizarre, a local Bushwick club we read about. Who was there to greet us? It was the French man who loved my photographs the previous year and came to see the new exhibit as well. He was the owner of Bizarre and was excited to show us a large room where he planned to make ‘Black Box,’ a photography gallery. Sure enough, I go to Black Box’s inaugural exhibit and Bizarre Publishing launch. He repeats, ‘I would like to show your work some day.’
“The next visit to Bizarre, disco balls were spinning in the club area and restrooms. A synapse sparked—the Black Box would be the perfect place to exhibit not only my Bushwick 80s work, but also the disco photos from that have never, ever been shown anywhere. They were the flip side of the same coin. It was through disco I first learned about Bushwick.
“On July 13, 1977, while en route to a private party at Studio 54 the blackout shuttered New York. A few days later, the disco beat was back while headlines and radios blasted news about a neighborhood I never heard of before, Bushwick, where looting and rioting erupted in the darkness and went on and on. It sounded like hell.
“Fast forward to 1981, I arrive at my new teaching position in a Bushwick Public School. And here I am 37 years later, looking at a disco ball spinning in Bushwick. It all made sense to me now. It was a true Tale of Two Cities that I lived in and photographed.
“Lessons Learned: 1: You are what you see. 2: Everyone you meet is important. 3: Perspective takes time and editing. 4: Each and everyone one of us is witness to history, some change history. To me, photography is memoir.
“I am a printer’s daughter. To have a book, in a physical printed and bound form, is a dream come true. I think about photography a lot. I always have. To me, it has a spiritual, philosophical down to earth nature. I like an SLR; I like eye contact. I am also aware that photography is part of who I am, my sense of purpose on earth.
“Looking at my photographs of the 70s, styles change, and come again. I remember the outfits, the fashion, which was so radically different from the hippy fashion a few years earlier. Most obvious, we are so saturated with casual usage of photography and sharing and sharing and sharing of images, images spitting into the wind. They are everywhere, in every form and everyone can make them. Yet, photography takes us to other worlds, real or imagined, and each photographer has their own style, some more distinct and recognizable than others.
“We all hold pencils and can make lines (with the grace of health and motor skills), yet some lines are so distinctive and uniquely the style of one person over another. We each have a voice, fingerprints. Photographic vision is as distinct as voice and fingerprints. Things we saw in the city of the 1970s that are disappearing, those one-of-a-kind Mom & Pop stores and bodegas, phone booths, fads. Most importantly, those people we loved or enjoyed knowing as neighbors, colleagues, friends who are no longer with us. Photographs of those beloved people and moments help keep them in our hearts, minds, and memory.”