The Urban Lens: Meryl Meisler chronicles today’s artists and creatives of Bushwick
6sqft’s ongoing series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment photographer Meryl Meisler documents the current artists and creatives of Bushwick. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
Earlier this year, TIME included Meryl Meisler on their list of “the greatest unsung female photographers of the past century,” not surprising considering the great success she’s had with her first monograph, “Disco Era Bushwick: A Tale of Two Cities,” which documents the glam/gritty 1970s and ‘80s (more on that here). Now, after more than 40 years, she realized that Bushwick won’t always be the artistic hub she’s come to know and love, and therefore needed documentation. In her new exhibition “Bushwick Chronicle” (on view at Stout Projects until October 30th) she returns to her analog roots of printing in the dark room to display photos of “the artists, gallerists, journalists, and organizers of Bushwick.” These images are paired with her illustrative painted photographs of Bushwick from the 1980s, as well as writer and art critic James Panero‘s musings on the area.
Meryl Meisler and James Panero
How long have you lived in NYC? What neighborhood do you live in now?
I moved to NYC in 1975 and currently live in Chelsea.
What in NYC is your favorite subject to photograph?
I like to photograph ironic juxtapositions of human beings in relationship to one another and/or their environment in both public and private settings.
How did the idea for Bushwick Chronicle come about?
Stout Projects invited James Panero to curate an exhibit in conjunction with Bushwick Open Studios 2016. James, an art critic who has been covering the Bushwick art scene for years, was familiar with my photographs of Bushwick the 1980s. To my honor and delight, he decided to curate my work and ultimately collaborate on Bushwick Chronicle.
It was James’s idea, inspired by Nina Leen’s 1950 photograph of “The Irascibles” to photograph contemporary Bushwick artists whose work he has been covering in his “Gallery Chronicle” column of The New Critereon. James and I got together to brainstorm. We were both familiar with Art Kane’s photograph 1958 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” of 57 notable Jazz musicians in front of a Harlem brownstone and decided to do an “open call” to all Bushwick artists, gallerists, organizers and journalists for a group photo outside Stout Projects. We collaborated with the gallery and Arts In Bushwick to organize the logistics and help spread the word. People who showed up to the call to gather for the large group portrait were invited up to do smaller group photos in the Stout Project gallery itself.
Busy Bees, 1988
Can you tell us a bit about how your new photos, your illustrative painted photographs of Bushwick from the 1980s, and James’ writing on the neighborhood all work together?
When the viewer enters the gallery, they find the History Wall, which includes an introductory statement from James about the inspiration and planning of the exhibit. On that wall, hanging salon style, are my vintage hand-painted, Cibachrome prints of Bushwick from the 1980s. They serve as a history of what Bushwick looked like when I began teaching there, enhanced by illustrative painting to represent my thoughts. For example, a boy rolling in a tire is in a “Rat Race,” surrounded by faux rats chasing after a hundred dollar bill. In “Busy Bees” an empty building is transformed into an active beehive, and I am the Queen Bee.
By James Panero
Excerpts from James’ essays about the Bushwick arts scene from the past decade, that I selected, are on index cards and pinned all around the installed painted photographs.
Upon the next wall hangs the black-and-white gelatin silver prints of smaller groups from the photo shoots at Stout Projects, representing the present Bushwick artists, gallerists, organizers and journalists. The adjacent third wall has another large printed essay from James alongside the larger group photo “A Great Day in Bushwick,” a reflection of the past on the present.
Two new hand-painted photos hang on a small portion of the last wall. They reinterpret the “Great Day in Bushwick” group photo and my portrait with James Panero. Prior to becoming a teacher, I was an illustrator. These two pieces are illustrations based on my reading of James’ “Bushwick Chronicle” manuscript. They also mark my desire to return to painting and drawing on my photographs, perhaps they are “The Past Influences The Future”.
Why did you decide to return to your analog roots and print in the dark room?
I recently published two internationally acclaimed monographs “A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick” and “Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City.” Both books feature my black-and-white medium format photographs from the 1970s and ‘80s. I fell back in love with black-and-white film looking at these images and started using my medium format camera with B&W film again, scanning and printing the images digitally. Earlier this year, Steven Kasher Gallery had an exhibit of my vintage prints from the 1970s. Seeing how exquisite and fresh it looks four decades later instilled a desire to print in the darkroom again.
I am a printer’s daughter; my dad Jack Meisler was a commercial letterpress and offset printer. He was the sole proprietor of Excel Printing Company in NYC. I am my father’s daughter and pride myself in the quality of my prints. There is no comparison to the beauty of a silver halide print. My archival pigment prints are lovely; my darkroom prints are exquisite. I spent most of this past summer in Woodstock where I rented the darkroom at The Center for Photography at Woodstock.
“A Garden Grows in Bushwick” by Meryl Meisler
Why do you personally feel it’s important to document the current artistic community in Bushwick?
I am someone who photographs the important people and places in my life, an ongoing photographic memoir. I never lived nor do I have a studio in Bushwick; I taught and photographed there from 1981 – 1994. The extended Bushwick artistic community has been wonderful and welcoming to me; they’ve helped me muster the courage to show my work to a larger audience and keep exploring the creative process. Bushwick and its artistic community are an important part of my life journey. Bushwick, like many neighborhoods are at a crucial point; we need to nurture and preserve our unique, diverse communities.
What else are you working on?
In the immediate future, I have a mile marker birthday for which I am planning a self-portrait that will incorporate drawing and painting on the photograph. I have numerous projects planned: immersing myself in the darkroom to print and edition iconic work from the 1970s to today; finding and re-photographing people who were in my original 1980s Bushwick images; editing 36 years of my insider’s view of the NYC schools; and focusing on what is important in life–maintaining meaningful relationships, a sense of well being and being open to unseen possibilities.
Laura Braslow and Chloë Bass
MORE FROM THE URBAN LENS:
- A Tale of Two Cities: Disco-Era Bushwick Burns While Manhattan Boogies (PHOTOS)
- The Urban Lens: Attis Clopton documents New York’s fleeting moments and faces
- The Urban Lens: Photographer Bob Estremera captures vestiges of the Lower East Side’s early days
All images courtesy of Meryl Meisler unless otherwise noted