Archival photographer Meryl Meisler discusses her life and her work
Born and raised in Nassau County, NY, Meryl Meisler is an archival photographer who’s a member of the Women Photographers Collective of the mid-Hudson valley. In her recent exhibition, “Simply Scintillating: A Retrospective,” Meisler reflects on the various subjects that grew close to her heart during her college years in the mid-1970s, including her life in Bushwick, New York City nightlife and different forms of portraiture. She made her living for most of her life as an art education teacher in New York, where she continued to photograph as a hobby. Wherever she went, she would bring her camera. This holds true to this day.
How did you begin your photography journey? How did your upbringing/education influence your art? How long have you been in the field?
The people in my Long Island family or others I knew and loved inspired my earliest photographs. I would photograph my entire life, which included my family, my friends, and my neighbors, and it would seem like a natural thing. Now, I’m more purposely photographing nightlife. I didn’t go to photograph; I photographed where I was going. I was hanging out on Fire Island, but growing up in Nassau County, we went to Jones Beach, Tobay and Beach clubs.
My first introduction to Fire Island was when I was a Girl Scout and we went to Camp Edey during the summers of fourth and fifth grade. We did sleepovers on what must have been Robert Moses Beach and some Girl Scouts pointed out to the ocean to a place they called Fire Island, where they claimed naked faeries lived in little houses with names like Shirley Temple.
Where do you find your influence? In what environments do you find yourself feeling most inspired?
In a Photo 101 class, I was introduced to the work of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who grew up in and photographed his early 20th-century wealthy Parisian family. In his photos, they wear beautiful outfits, but they’re goofing around doing family fun things, like jumping into the pool in suits and running races. That inspired me to go home and photograph my family, friends and neighbors in Long Island.
When I moved to NYC, I wasn’t trying to catch nightlife; I was having fun at night. I never published the work or showed it. I just did it and, fortunately, brought my camera along. We went to some famous clubs. I spent 14 years teaching in Bushwick when it was not a hip place or a hot place. It was a run-down place, and it seemed scary to carry a camera. I just took photos with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera.
I photographed the subways in Times Square. I photographed marquees and I went to Bloomingdale’s, which was a big deal for me, even though I would go to the city with my family.
How has the Women Photographers Collective given you an outlet to express yourself?
I love being part of the collective because I’ve made new friends, people who understand our passions and any artists or any field. I think it’s really important to have colleagues and friends who are part of a community because it’s very easy to give up and having people who encourage you to do things together is powerful. Sisterhood is powerful.
Do you digitally alter your photographs? If so, how does your artistic eye shine through your use of applications like Adobe Photoshop?
I used to never do anything with my photographs. I started painting with them, customizing them. Through that, I got an invitation from a new software company called Adobe when they were experimenting with making a new program of so-called Photoshop and partnering with Apple. I was one of the first people trained to use Photoshop for them.
The image itself is where the strength is. The images are powerful unto themselves. Nowadays, I do not alter my photographs other than retouching for dust, scratches or shifts in color. I chose to go back to using film. I fell in love with this choice of using film again.
Why is it so important, from a female lens, to express yourself through photography? How do you implement the female gaze through your art?
Everything you are and do reflects in how you see the world, and how you respond to it. I am a baby boomer, a proud Jew and lesbian, a feminist and a retired teacher. Those things are part of who I am and how I see and react to the world. Those influences come out naturally in your artwork, like your fingerprints.