For Meryl Meisler, freedom in photography has a number of different meanings.
There was the freedom that came from working mainly as an independent photographer – capturing the disco era in New York City as well as documenting her time working as a teacher and taking street photos of Bushwick, Brooklyn.
But, there is also the freedom on the other end of the lens. Meisler asks the vast majority of those she photographs for their consent.
“I sense that very often people say yes because I am seeing something – something about them that I feel beautiful and uplifting and expressing a feeling of freedom of life,” she said.
Then there is the freedom in creative expression itself – and of seeing her work in new light as she prepares for her third monograph to be published and her work displayed in a solo gallery show in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.
“It’s freedom to discover who you want to be and how to be part of and answer society,” she said.
Meisler’s new exhibit, New York PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco, is scheduled to run from June 3 through July 9 at ClampArt, located on the ground floor of 247 West 29th Street.
A complimentary show of related works will also be exhibited at The Center for Photography at Woodstock, New York from July 1 through August 15.
The exhibitions will showcase photography Meisler created over several decades in New York City. She brought her camera nearly everywhere.
“I photograph things that made me want to get up and go back to work the next day,” she said. “In retrospect I don't go to photograph, I photograph where I'm going.”
She worked as an art teacher in Bushwick between 1981 and 1994 and later moved on to a school in Manhattan. She also documented the Brooklyn neighborhood in her daily life.
“I have been digging through my archive of the Bushwick work for 14 years now. I feel like I have found and polished the gems,” she said.
Meisler’s collections of photographs showcase New York City’s vibrancy and joy.
“Working in Bushwick when it was going through a very difficult time, I noticed that most of the people in the photographs are just living their lives and going forth,” she said. “Even the buildings, they had beautiful life.”
She also found beauty in New York’s glitzy nightlife scene – including famed club Studio 54 – capturing the scenes on black and white film with her medium-format camera.
“I wasn't going as a paparazzi to photograph the discos. I was participating, I was going and dancing and I just happened to have my camera at the time,” she said.
Among her photographs are scenes from the Hookers Ball at the Copacabana and famous faces like Grace Jones, Andy Warhol and the Village People. Some of the photos also feature Meisler’s friend, JudiJupiter – such as one, titled “Five Fashionable Rejects (With JudiJupiter)” taken outside Studio54 in October 1978 and another from the same year of women embracing on the floor near Jupiter’s strappy sandals.
“Through images that have not been seen for 40 years, Meisler juxtaposes the worlds of Bushwick and bohemia, following the highs and lows of a city in decadence and decline through day and night,” writer, editor and cultural critic James Panero wrote in the introduction of her new book.
In a section of the book, titled “Meaningful Coincidences,” Meisler described the moment when she knew she wanted to put the bodies of work together. She had gone into the bathroom of BIZARRE, a drag and burlesque nightclub in Bushwick, to check her lipstick. Overhead was a small disco ball, and another hung above the crowded dance floor.
“It hit me, my Bushwick and Disco photos belong together. They are intertwining strands of the same story,” she wrote.