📷: Meryl Meisler. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York
As a young girl growing up in Massapequa — aka “Matzoh Pizza” — during the ’50s and ’60s, Meryl Meisler ’s childhood on Long Island was filled with scenes of suburban bliss. She plié’d and releve’d in ballet class, dazzled at twirl, and amassed an impressive array of service badges as a Girl Scout. But within her picture perfect life, Meisler yearned for something more — something magical that was wholly out of this world.
The seeds were first planned during the summer of ’62, when Meisler and a squadron of Girl Scouts camped out on the beach overnight. Amid the preteen chatter, Meisler overheard the girls whispering about a place out in the ocean called “Fire Island,” where naked fairies flittered to and fro, living in quaint seaside cottages with names like Shirley Temple, the patron saint of mid-century theater Kids.
Later that summer, Marilyn Monroe died and with her passing, the 1950s had come to an end. The claustrophobic image of a cookie cutter culture — white, cis-heteronormative nuclear families living in identical houses cropping up across wide swaths of suburban terrain — was decidedly out of vogue as the Swinging Sixties unleashed a host of liberation movements that reimagined freedom and justice for all.
All across the nation, people from the Black, Latino, Native American, Women, and LGBTQ communities rose up to claim their constitutional rights, pushing back against a system that profited off their exploitation and disenfranchisement. They rallied, pushing through the single greatest era of progressive legislation since the New Deal, each movement building upon one another to establish liberty and justice for all amidst the explosive backdrop of the Sexual Revolution. In this singular moment in American history, a long-standing schism that first broke open during the Civil War, reasserted itself, creating the foundation upon which the Culture Wars have been fought ever since.
As the Left made their voices heard, a new sound emerged, one of pulsating, hedonic bliss that could be found late at night under the strobe lights of a new phenomenon known as discotheques. Here, a cadre of Black, Latino, and Italian American musicians from the LGBTQ community fashioned a new style of dance music featuring diva- driven vocals, orchestral melodies, and syncopated bass lines set to four-on-the four beats that could be mixed and remixed with abandon by the DJ — the night’s shining star.
As DJs replaced bands, they created sonic landscapes that brought people together as one for a night of unbridled passion let loose on the dancefloor. DJs like Larry Levan at the Garage took the congregation to church, delivering life-affirming services where the spirit and flesh became one, complete with hand clapping, foot stomping, praise giving experiences that revelers honor to this day — 36 years after the club closed — with an annual anniversary party.
As the disco scene began to hit its stride in 1975, Meisler arrived in New York at tender age of 23, with ambitions of becoming an artist and the opportunity to live free. She had just come out and was questioning her future in the suburban world of her youth. Not seeing a place where she fit comfortably, Meisler hightailed it to Manhattan to study with fabled photographer Lisette Model that fall and sublet a room from her cousin on the Upper West Side long before the neighborhood was gentrified. She started waking the streets, medium-format camera and a couple of rolls of film in hand, using photography the way one bums a cigarette: an opportunity for chance encounters with people who caught her eye.
Working as a freelance illustrator, Meisler continued to pursue her passion for photography, studying at the International Center of Photography, and then with Bob Adelman, the famed Civil Rights photographer who had recently published the landmark book, Gentleman of Leisure: A Year in the Life of a Pimp with writer Susan Hall, chronicling the underground world of Silky, a black pimp managing a stable of white sex workers.
Through Adelman, Meisler learned of the COYOTE Hooker’s Ball on Valentine’s Day 1977 — Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics — which would become her first foray into the city’s sizzling disco scene. “I put on my little Girl Scouts uniform and went to the party, which was at the Copacabana,” she remembers. Meisler was dazzled by the pomp and grandeur of the illustrious club idolized by Groucho Marx in film and Barry Manilow in song, where headliners ranging from Frank Sinatra to Marvin Gaye cemented their names among a pantheon of stars.
That unforgettable winter night, Meisler rubbed shoulders with working girls of all stripes. “It was one of the first times I got myself through the door and I was comfortable in my own skin, being myself around people who were different from me — and loving every moment of it,” she says. Although she was younger than most in attendance, she felt completely at home among what she describes as “extravagance, wickedness, and decadence.” Whirling among the beautiful people with camera at the ready, Meisler found her lane — and soon thereafter she would meet her partner in crime, Judi Jupiter, on the Greyhound bus back from Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Dubbing themselves “Neurotic Erotica,” the young bon vivants played their parts to the hilt with Judi as the lascivious libertine and Meryl as the artist at work, documenting the the decadent disco scene with equal parts aplomb and abandon. Enthralled by the swirl of people from all walks of life, Meisler drew inspiration from legendary photographer Brassaï, who had finally published his evocative memoir, The Secret Paris of the 30’s , the summer before. The book featured photographs of the city’s bas monde, far too scandalous to be published in Paris by Night, the groundbreaking 1933 monograph that propelled Brassaï into the stratosphere. But fours decades later, the world had changed and scenes from brothels and opium dens became catnip to a generation of youth eager to explore the intoxicating blend of sex, drugs, and disco nights. Meisler set forth on a mission to chronicle her own adventures through New York’s flourishing nightlife scene as the 1970s came to a close, amassing an extraordinary wealth of images collected in PARADISE LOST Bushwick Era Disco, the final volume of a trilogy that looks at New York City through a singular Lens.
Whether grooving at Studio 54 alongside Andy Warhol, partying at Hurrah with Halston, Meisler was in the mix — and it all came full circle when she started summering on Fire Island, dancing the night away at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove. Now, some 46 years since Meisler’s first night on the town, she revisits this breathtaking era for the new exhibition of the works at Carole Lambert in Paris.
“I was totally conscious that this was my Paris in the ’30s,” Meisler says. “There’s another world of people who come out at night and create this amazing energy together. A whole economy revolved around them, whether it was 24-hour grocery stores, late-night restaurants, or afterhours clubs. The city never stops. We were all different but the one thing we had in common is we didn’t have to get up at six in the morning to go to work.”
Meryl Meisler is on view at Carole Lambert in Paris though February 28, 2023.
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