Photography As Memoir: Questions for Meryl Meisler, Art Education Field Supervisor and Author

Meryl Meisler, an adjunct instructor in the Department of Art and Art Professions, supervises NYU’s student teachers in the New York City public and private schools.  Meisler has worked as visual and digital art teacher for New York City’s Department of Education, a photographer for the American Jewish Congress, and a faculty member at the International Center of Photography.  Her work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, Dia Center NYC, MASS MoCA, The Whitney, and in public spaces such as Grand Central Terminal and the New York City subway system.

Self Portrait Sky Studio Adventurer (Meryl Meisler)

Your book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, juxtaposes images of Brooklyn with the disco scene of the 1970s and 80s — can you talk a little about your life at that time?

Although my bachelor’s degree was in art education, I was scared to teach, so I returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and earned a master’s degree in photography and illustrative drawing.  In 1979, in need of steady paycheck, I became a part time New York City public school art and photography teacher. Then in 1981, in need of a full time job with benefits, I became the art and photography teacher at I.S. 291 in Bushwick.

Handshake (Meryl Meisler)

Walking to my new teaching job, I was shocked. Bushwick resembled a war zone, scorched and seeming forgotten since the widespread arson that occurred during the 1977 blackout.  But to me, Bushwick’s natural light was beautiful; kids were kids; and vacant buildings whispered: ‘Here I am, take my picture before I collapse.’

In 1977, I met stand-up comic, Judi Jupiter, at Mardi Gras, and we became friends and started going to the punk clubs and discos together. So I photographed New York City street life by day and my adventures in the city’s hottest discos by night; developed the film, cut them up, then placed them in negative sleeves to file away. I showed a few of the street photos, but never showed any of the disco images until now.

Grace Jones La Farfalle (Meryl Meisler)

How did your students react to your photos?

The students were more impressed by my drawings than my photography. They had a huge respect for artists and appreciated the drawing tips I could give them. They loved having access to cameras and a darkroom, using art and photography to learn about their neighborhood, express their points of view, and make work to show to the public.  Former students who connect with me through social media or in person recall fondly the projects they worked on decades later.

Meryl Meisler and her students at I.S. 291, Bushwick, Brooklyn.

As Steinhardt’s art education field supervisor, do you get to shoot much?

Working as the art education field supervisor at NYU part time gives me time to dive into my archives, organize exhibitions, and focus on my book. A prequel and sequel are in the works. I consider the work I am doing now a visual memoir.  I still follow my personal passion by photographing student teachers during observation sessions. Students can use these images for their teaching portfolios.  These days, I am adding to what is probably my largest ever growing body of work — a pedagogue’s view of  New York City’s public and private schools from 1979 to now.

Pink Twins (Meryl Meisler)

What did creating A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, teach you?

You are what you see and do.

Everyone you meet is important.

Perspective takes time and editing.

Each of us is a witness to and part of history.

To me, photography is memoir.

Beauty Salon (Meryl Meisler)

What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

Never give up on yourself and your personal artwork. Keep doing it; that is your gift to yourself and the universe. It will help keep you grounded and sane. If, like me, you need to be employed, make your job an extension of your creativity.

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On October 7th, Meryl Meisler will be discussing A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, at NYU’s Bookstore.  Visit the bookstore’s website, to learn more about the event.