Photo: Bushwick Chronicle: A Great Day in Bushwick.
On the northern edge of Brooklyn lies Bushwick, the largest Latino community in the borough. Comprised primarily of Americans of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, the neighborhood has produced leaders like Nydia Velázquez, the first Latina elected to the United States Congress and actress and activist Rosie Perez.
By the early 1970s, it became devastated under the federal policy of “benign neglect,” as well as the Nixon White House’s drug war, which flooded the neighborhood with heroin. By the late 1970s, arson had taken its toll, leaving Bushwick looking like a third world country. Yet, despite it all, the community persevered.
Native New Yorker Meryl Meisler (b. 1951) first arrived in Bushwick in 1981 to teach photography to public school children. A student of the legendary Lisette Model, Meisler possessed an intuitive gift for connecting with the inherent humanity of people in any circumstance. In 2014, she released her first book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick (Bizarre Publishing), which brought together her days on the streets of Brooklyn with her nights in the clubs. The book was a phenomenal success, bringing her back to the old neighborhood.
But Bushwick wasn’t quite what it used to be; following the recession of 2008, a many creatives were displaced as the rents in Manhattan shot to astronomical heights while the jobs disappeared. In Bushwick, they found a source of renewal, a True York that was what downtown used to be—when downtown was cool.
In the intervening years a new scene sprung up as Bushwick transformed into a vibrant arts community in an ever-increasingly corporate city. In 2006, Arts in Bushwick, a volunteer-run organization, set up Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), which is New York’s largest open studios event. The festival is held this year on October 1-2, with studios open from 11am-7pm.
Earlier this spring, art critic James Panero, the Executive Editor of The New Criterion, contacted Meisler with a brilliant idea to honor the thriving art scene in Bushwick in tandem with BOS. He proposed an group portrait in the spirit of Nina Leen’s 1950 portrait of the Abstract Expressionists, “The Irascibles,” and Art Kane’s 1958 portrait of Jazz musicians in “A Great Day in Harlem.”
They approached Stout Projects to photograph inside and outside the gallery; once an agreement was reached, an open call went out to artists, gallerists, journalists, and organizers to take part. Meisler remembers with a laugh, “How do you plan a photo shoot when you have no idea who or how many people are coming?”
Seventy-five people showed up for the first shoot; then they did a second call. Meisler shot with a medium format camera and returned to the darkroom for the first time since 1979. “It was so exciting,” she says, exuding the pure joy of a woman returning to an old love with the unbridled pleasure of a child. “I was up in Woodstock and spent the summer in the darkroom. It was just lovely!”
From the two sessions, comes Bushwick Chronicle: Photography by Meryl Meisler, Writing by James Panero, on view at Stout Projects now through October 30, 2016. The exhibition features Meisler’s new photographs and illustrative photographs she made in the 1980s paired with Panero’s writing on the neighborhood.
“Bushwick has evolved as an artistic center almost entirely apart from mainstream New York, with a culture that has embraced studio experimentation, do-it-yourself independence, and communal interaction,” Panero wrote in April 2013, a text included in Bushwick Chronicle.
This spirit is the essence of Old York, of the outsiders who thrive in the void. As Panero wrote in February 2012,” Art abhors a vacuum. It needs atmosphere to bounce its energy around. That’s why artists, writers, and videographers are slowly building their own infrastructure to support an alternative ecosystem for serious art.”
This ecosystem is part of a larger continuum that exists throughout the city’s history following World War II, when the art world moved from Paris to New York. In the rise of the city as the global capital of the world, it also provided a space for the free thinkers, innovators, and visionaries who wanted to blaze their own path and explore.
Meryl Meisler is the perfect example of this: she has worked as a photographer for decades, but has only recently begun stepped into the spotlight as one of the finest chroniclers of our age.
All photos: © Meryl Meisler 2016.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.