Nightclubbing with Legendary Photographer Meryl Meisler 

Black and white photo of Meryl Meisler in her apartment smiling for a picture with three of her cameras.

By Laura June Kirsch (not a non-plussed edition)

Meryl Meisler is a true NYC legend, the kind of person that makes New York, well, New York. I first met Meryl on March 11th, 2020 a few days before the world changed, during my last assignment before lockdown. 

That night I was photographing the opening of Studio 54: Night Magic at the Brooklyn Museum for Jutxtapoz I was admiring some gorgeous nightlife photography when an energetic woman with a large boxy film camera approached me. “You’re a photographer, would you mind taking my picture? This is my artwork.” I soon pieced it together that this was Meryl Meisler, whose work I am a fan of. I owned her book “A Tale Of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick” which showcases her life as a teacher by day and clubgoer by night. I love her artful documentation of nightlife, how she finds the heart and comedy in any social situation, something I’ve always strived for in my own work.

9:45 PM I meet Meryl at her Chelsea Apartment

Meryl and I stayed in touch, she’s been a great mentor to me. We are kindred spirits in many ways — both growing up on Long Island and sharing a love for music, photography and of course, a great sense of humor. Women who do go after what they want despite whatever barriers to entry there may be with a DIY spirit. Meeting her has been one of those serendipitous New York experiences —the magic of the city that keeps you here.

She emailed me recently about her new show QUIRKYVISION and suggested we go out clubbing together soon. I thought that was a great idea and upped the ante to do a photo story on our night out. My long-time friend Child Of (also from Long Island) was playing at House Of X the next week, once again, it was meant to be.

Of course, I had a few questions for Meryl on her upcoming projects:

10PM Meryl and I are getting ready to head to the club! I offer to buy us a cab, being a real deal New Yorker she insists on the subway – my kind of person. 

During our night out you mentioned an upcoming show in France, can you tell us a little about this show and any upcoming projects you’re working on?

I’m thrilled that QUIRKYVISION, my first solo exhibit in France, will be part of the  PORTRAIT(S)  Tenth Annual Festival in Vichy, France, June 24 through September 4, 2022. Oui! I’ll be at the opening receptions in Vichy on June 24th and 25th.

 ArtProjects selected fifty images from my books New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco (2021), Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City (2015)  and A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick (2014). The photos will be exquisitely installed at the Le Palais des Congrès de Vichy, a historical architectural gem. 

Souvenirs Fire Island 1970’s: The Photography of Meryl Meisler, curated by the Fire Island Pines Historical Society  Cherry Grove, Fire Island, NY, opens July 9th at The Ice Palace Resort.  and will remain on exhibit throughout summer 2022. I will be at the book signing  on July 9th, Fire Island Souvenir Day.

My work will be included in PRESENT a prideART Group Show curated by Eva Mueller featuring 32 queer artists from Berlin & New York, at DMAC Duo Multicultural Arts Center, June 15 through 25. Opening Reception, June 15, 8 – 10pm.

10:30PM We get to the club. I had been firmly informed multiple times that there is absolutely no flash allowed inside.. I’ve spent too many nights arguing about bringing gear into venues and didn’t bring one as instructed. Meryl, being the legend she is, came with hers.. She immediately is recognized by one of the venue staff and they give her their blessing to use flash (again, legend).

We chatted about your teaching days, your former students are heavily featured in your work. How often do they get in touch with you and do they know about your art career? Any memorable interactions?

Like most teachers, I’ve worked with hundreds of students. A few live in my NYC apartment complex. Some find me on social media and reach out when they see themselves or someone they know in articles about my work. Several have entered careers in the arts, and we find ourselves at the same art event, or they come to my exhibit receptions. Last week, a former student was the best man at my distant cousin’s wedding. He is now an NYC teacher, so we did a lot of “teacher talk.” Like many others, he had no idea that my art career had “taken off” and was pleased to learn it had. While photographing at The House of Yes in Bushwick, another former student yelled out, “Meryl, I can’t believe it’s you!” We hung out, catching up on her life after Middle School. It’s so lovely to meet adolescents now grownup. They often reminisce about their favorite projects we did in class, let me know I helped them through challenging times and /or apologize for any “bad behavior” in my class. I assure them they weren’t that “bad.” I learned from them as well. 

Here’s a recent memorable interaction, being interviewed by a former student, Carlos Ramos, on his Podcast Cook The Barber. It was a surprise to see Carlos framed and cherishes the photos he printed in our class darkroom back in the 1980s.

Meryl orders a drink.  She lets me know she never was much of a drinker until Trump got elected, now she imbibes from time to time. 

When you were teaching how many nights a week did you go out photographing clubs? How did you keep up!

The first two years, I taught four days a week. Going out clubbing was reserved for weekends. There was no way I could be conscious, at school by 8:15 and teaching kids if I went out the night before. September 1980, my girlfriend (now wife) Patricia O’Brien moved from San Francisco to NYC to begin our life together. We went out to clubs occasionally, but I didn’t bring my camera. We were on date nights. Then the AIDS epidemic struck. It was devastating.

Flash forward forty years. Thanks to the Bushwick arts community and The Living Gallery I met Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, filmmaker and owner of BIZARRE, a former drag/burlesque bar in Bushwick, who wanted to publish my work. I had a revelation seeing the disco ball in BIZARRE’s restroom and over the dance floor. Bushwick was now THE nightlife place to be. OMG —it hit me, my Bushwick and Disco photos belonged together. They were flip sides of the same coin, NYC’s story and my own journey. I started digging into my never-shown nightlife photos, realizing they were fascinating and culturally historic. In addition, I enjoyed going to performances at BIZARRE.

During Covid lockdowns, I realized how much I missed live theater and performance. As soon as the theaters reopened, I started going back to Broadway shows and seeing my friend Madame Vivien V perform in drag. When I was in my twenties, 77-year-old “Disco Sally,” AKA Sally Lippman was everywhere cutting the dance floor. Entering my thirties, I thought, “I don’t want to be Disco Sally, the old lady at the disco.” Now I understand why Disco Sally wanted to be out at the clubs with younger people. I enjoy going out again, photographing contemporary nightlife with fresh eyes while being mindful of being up to date with vaccinations, boosters, and wearing a mask because I want to stay healthy.

A fan asks to have his photograph taken with Meryl.

What was your first big career moment with photography?

I was awarded a CETA Grant to work as a documentary photographer for The American Jewish Congress from 1978 to 1979 as one of three artists hired to create a photographic archive of Jewish New York. For community service, I taught photography to kids and homebound adults. It made me felt connected in lineage and purpose to the FSA and WPA photographers. That confidence carried forth in my nightlife forays with my friend JudiJupiter, capturing the club scene we were part of with my camera.

Around midnight Meryl asks if I’ve seen the “fuzzy room”. It’s my first time at this club  and I did not know of the fuzzy room, I’m instantly curious. Unclear if we were technically allowed in the fuzzy room but anything goes when you’re out with Meryl. The room is indeed very fuzzy.

What advice would you give to your former self?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Sure, you make many mistakes. No one is perfect. In hindsight, you’re doing a good job while maintaining personal integrity. You prioritized health and well-being, finding professional help to cope with depression. You have nourished lifelong, loving relationships, friends, and mutually supportive community. Realizing you wanted a sense of security; you found a profession that built upon your creative passions and establish a personal safety net. You’ve kept making art, learning, and trying. You’ve stayed open-minded and helped others along their journey. Keep striving to be a mensch, a good person.

This Child Of DJing

What’s next for Meryl?

Several solo exhibitions and new books are on the horizon.

Eyeshot will be publishing a book on my street photography from 1973 to 2022. A new NYC gallery is opening in Autumn 2022 with my work. Finally, an exhibit and related book are in the incubator stages of my fifty years in photography (gasp) retrospective show at my gallery, ClampArt.

I will be teaching two workshops:

The Streets of New York: street photography workshop with Meryl Meisler” ” (in person, September 14 – 22, 2022) with Miami Street Photography Festival.

Revive Your Archive: Find, Polish and Share the Gems with Meryl Meisler” (online six sessions, October 12 – November 16) with the Los Angeles Center of Photography.

I returned to my analog roots in recent years, using medium format film cameras and printing in the darkroom. I want to continue creating new work, digging into my archive, printing, exhibiting, publishing, getting my art into permanent collections, traveling, finding joy and a sense of purpose while welcoming new possibilities.

It’s past 1 AM and we ask a guest arriving at the venue to snap our picture as our night wraps! Coming from the Studio 54 days, Meryl can out party any Millennial like myself.