Growing up in Long Island during the 1950s and 60s, Meryl Meisler had the archetypal burghal life: babe Scouts, ballet and tap ball lessons, and prom. But while she admired her ancestors and friends, she didn’t absolutely fit in. She bound accomplished she didn’t appetite to be a housewife, teacher, nurse, or a secretary—pretty abundant the alone options accessible to adolescent women at that time.
As Meisler came of age, she began to ascertain her changeable as a lesbian as able-bodied as her character as an artist. “Photography is in my genes,” Meisler said. Her benevolent grandfathering Murray Meisler, her uncle Al, and her ancestor Jack had all been constant practitioners of the art.
Meisler got her aboriginal camera in additional grade, but it wasn’t until she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison during the mid-1970s that she became austere about the anatomy while advancing an MA in Art. During academy breaks, she alternate to her adolescence home, area she staged a alternation of self-portraits that advised her past, present, and future. At this point, Meisler hadn’t heard of Cindy Sherman, but she had the aforementioned instinct. She approved to appraise the architecture of the changeable gender, from its rituals to its poses to its personas.
A alternative of these photographs appears in Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY 70s Suburbia & The Burghal (Bizarre), while others accept afresh appear to ablaze as Meisler prepares for her abutting book. Here, she speaks with us about this seminal aeon of her life, administration a self-portrait of the artisan as a adolescent woman accessible to booty flight.
Self-Portrait, The Babe Scout Oath, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
VICE: Can you booty us aback to what activity was like growing up in Long Island during the 1950s and 60s?Meryl Meisler: I’m from Massapequa. It was alleged “Matzo Pizza” because there were so abounding Jewish and Italian families. There were Irish and German and maybe one Chinese family. It was, and still is, a actual absolute town.
Growing up, anybody was a aboriginal and additional bearing American. Best of the parents were from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens and bought their homes on the G.I. bill for beneath $15,000. Aggregate was aloof starting. All the farmland was bound acceptable apartment developments.
My parents, Sunny and Jack Meisler, relished the burghal affairs and fabricated abiding my brothers and I had all the things they didn’t accept because they both grew up actual poor. I had piano lessons, ballet, tap, twirling—everything but art! I was alive in the Brownies and Babe Scouts, all the way up to Cadets.
It was actual provincial. I was advantageous that my parents took us to the city. My ancestor had a press business and my mother admired theater. We acclimated to go to Broadway shows. I anticipate you can see this in my work—it’s actual theatrical.
Self-Portrait, The Ballerina, North Massapequa, NY, June 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
At what point did you activate to apprehend that you didn’t absolutely fit in and weren’t activity to alpha an developed activity in the suburbs?If you appetite to allocution about actuality gay, yes I had feelings. But I additionally dated, went to proms, Sweet Sixteens, and had boyfriends, and enjoyed it all. I knew I was different, but I didn’t apperceive what it was.
My brothers and I were the aboriginal bearing in my ancestors that had the affluence of activity to college. I got into Buffalo State. I didn’t anticipate about what I capital to do. On the aboriginal day, we accustomed a array of tests and it came aback that I could go into apprenticeship or the arts. I took a chic for non-art majors and admired the assignments. The abecedary asked if I anytime anticipation about acceptable an art above and I actually acquainted my affection thump.
I alleged my parents and told them I capital to abstraction art. But it was beneath the action that I get a teaching amount so that I could consistently accomplish a living. I admired it and accelerating aboriginal in my chic in the academy of education.
It turns out Cindy Sherman went to Buffalo State as well. She was an art above there and accelerating a year or two afterwards I did. She was additionally from Long Island, which is funny as well. But I never took a photography chic there.
Self-Portrait, Smoker Dishwasher, North Massapequa, NY, 1973 ©Meryl Meisler
How did you get into photography?Photography was consistently allotment of my life. Any time I saw my benevolent grandfathering he had a camera on him and a ablaze meter, and he acclimated it. My dad had an hawkeye eye and photographed with a Rolleicord. My appearance is actual abundant afflicted by him. He photographed friends, family, and appropriate occasions and he did it absolutely well.
Going into my chief year of college, my admirer in Buffalo bankrupt up with me. He said I wasn’t a absolute artist. So what did I do? I took myself to the Museum of Modern Art and saw the Diane Arbus show. It was a alertness that, “I am an artist. Tough noogies.”
While I was in alum school, I absitively to booty a photography chic because I capital to apprentice how to use a absolute camera. I bought a Pentax SRT 101. I was account the admonition on the alike to academy and I awash it and anticipation I bankrupt it—that’s been a affair anytime since.
As anon as I went home, I started photographing myself and my friends. I am activity through my aboriginal rolls on 35mm blur now for the abutting book. I apparent one of the pictures, area I am smoker cigarettes in advanced of the dishwasher. I don’t apperceive if that was the aboriginal or additional cycle but I fabricated a self-portrait immediately.
That photograph abashed me. I never printed it. I was cutting annihilation but my mother’s abode dress and I took her cigarettes alike admitting I didn’t smoke. I was allurement myself, “Am I a approaching housewife?” It was a actual clandestine moment.
Self-Portrait, Shaving, North Massapequa, NY, 1973 ©Meryl Meisler
How did authoritative these self-portraits acquiesce you to analyze this cardinal aeon of transformation in your life?I capital to photograph this activity that I knew, that I had been seeing and active for abounding years. I would appear home from academy and go through the closets and the attics, area we kept aggregate from appropriate occasions. The photos are about activity amid adolescence and adulthood, area I asked myself, “Who am I? What do I appetite to be?”
Going to the amphitheater was actual influential. I lit the apartment in my abode like a stage, actual absolute and crude, application the curtains as curtains and the altar as backgrounds. The abode was like addition affiliate of the ancestors because that is the abode that I lived in aback I was two years old.
I was 21 activity on 22 aback I started demography these pictures and I was absolutely saying, “Come on already! Appear out!” (Laughs). It eventually did happen, but abounding of the photos are in the ‘twixt and the ‘tween. I was analytic my approaching in the suburbs. I didn’t see how I would fit in.
Looking back, do you see commodity in the photos you weren’t acquainted of while you were authoritative them?I see it as acutely brave—and I alike dared to book them. It afraid me to see how bent I was.
Untitled Blur Still, North Massapequa, NY, Thanksgiving 1976 ©Meryl Meisler
Speaking of daring, could you allege about the Lynda Benglis photo and how this aggressive you to actualize one of your best abolitionist self-portraits?There was a affiche for a Lynda Benglis exhibition blind in the alley of the art administration at the University of Wisconsin. There she was, aloof continuing there naked, cutting a huge dildo!
I didn’t apperceive area I got the afflatus for that photo until we had this conversation. For me, my camera was my power. I took the attempt added than once. One time I had this guy I was dating advice me with it, and addition time, it ability accept been my approaching helpmate (Laughs). It absolutely wasn’t my brother!
When Steven Kasher was because giving me a appearance in 2016, he was attractive through my prints—and he best that one! I was like, “I accept to accord it a title,” so I alleged it “Untitled Blur Still” as a advertence to Cindy Sherman.
It’s a aggressive picture. Aloof assuming it was like, “Ohh!” I am actual analytical about what is a photograph. It can’t aloof be abominable or agreement or lighting or history—it has to be a little bit of everything. I looked at the photo and said, “It has all of that.”
I additionally had a moment aback I thought: “If not now, when?” You apperceive what? It’s a absolute image.
Self-Portrait, My Adolescence Bedroom Mirror, North Massapequa, NY, February 1976 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, Babe Scout Applying Lipstick, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, A Falling Star, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, Dancing with my Brother Mitch, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, Playmate Hostess, NY, NY, December 1978 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, Tap Dancing with Mom, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, Whopping it up with Leslie Afterwards Chauffeuring Mitch to the Prom, Huntington, NY, June 1976 ©Meryl Meisler
Self-Portrait, Dining Room Table, North Massapequa, NY, January 1975 ©Meryl Meisler
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