(video by Sean Alday & Dallas Athent)
We met photographer Meryl Meisler at The Living Gallery. The J train rumbled overhead and people were partying out on the block. Inside, she was chatting with her crew about photography and the hood. She immediately greeted us to tell us her story.
Meisler got her first intro to Bushwick in the 1980s as an art teacher at a local school, a job which sparked her project, Defying Devastation: Bushwick Then and Now. “I just walked out of the subway onto this place I was going to teach. I can’t say I was in awe. I was in shock of what I saw because it looked like a wasteland. It looked like the aftermath of a war.”
She continued, “The previous spring I was teaching in a school on the Lower East Side, and somebody came in and said ‘I have a gun. Give me your camera,’ and I gave him my camera. So I wasn’t afraid of working in Bushwick, I was working in East New York before that. But I was fearful of carrying a camera and getting robbed again. But walking back and forth to the subway I was attracted to people just living their life. Even though it looked like a rubble wasteland, I knew I was obsessed. I wanted to take pictures, so I bought my first point and shoot camera and just carried it.”
What started out as an obsession turned into one of the most telling documentations of Bushwick ever. Today, Meisler’s photos allow us to see what the hood was in the raw. Meisler’s countless images go beyond displaying destruction. They show the people of the area, and how they enjoyed their community and lived it. You see the faces of kids and their families, stoops, basketball in the streets. And while these beautiful things are occurring in front of a backdrop of hardship, the hardship isn’t the focus of many of them.
Meisler affirms it. “You do not see photos of crackheads. I did not photograph people who were really high and seemed dangerous. I did not go into buildings that were condemned. I did not step on the crack vials…I guess, looking back, I photographed things that I found uplifting.” And it’s true. Check out her photos and you’ll just see some truly beautiful people doing their thing.
In 2011, Meisler showed the images at a gallery in SoHo, which prompted us to write it up. Soon after the show, writer Vanessa Martir contacted Meryl when she recognized herself in one of the photos. Now not only is Vanessa fly as hell and flippin’ gorgeous, she’s extremely talented and essential to the project. As Meryl put it, “We hit it off immediately. Because my pictures tell her story. Her stories tell my pictures.” What a team. Vanessa then wrote stories to accompany Meisler’s photos for Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s during 2012 Bushwick Open Studios.
They hooked up once more for Bushwick Open Studios in 2013; once again, Vanessa created the voices behind the iconic images for a project, Defying Devastation: Bushwick Then and Now. And obviously these two, being who they are, weren’t going to go on without including the community. They created an interactive wall for residents to throw up their own images, writing, and thoughts about the neighborhood. Brooklyn writers of all ages were also invited to share their stories, many of which were actually intertwined in the exhibit itself.
While at the gallery we saw people from the community – old and young, native and new – come to see just how the neighborhood has been captivated through all these decades, and talk about what it’s become. But through the years one thing’s been for sure. Whether she’s photographing the 1980s or the 2010s, Meisler’s all about the good stuff. “I’m into photographing people who are finding joy in life.”