The “Problem” with A Life’s Work

A mess of years ago I took a thirty-minute work-in-progress sample of A Life’s Work to a film market. Imagine a speed dating event taking place in a high school gymnasium. Imagine there are 9,000 courters (filmmakers) and 45 courtees (producers). Imagine that the courters  are given six minutes to pitch themselves and show off some of their finer points. That’s basically a film market.

A producer was interested in the film, and so I met her. She arrived late, heard my elevator pitch and looked at about three minutes of the film. Then she said, “Tell me more about Arcosanti.” I began to explain, as best as one can, Arcosanti, and she interrupted me. “Is the soil contaminated, or the water? Anything like that?” I told her no, it wasn’t. She was disappointed.

I then realized the “problem” with the film. It isn’t a call-to-action documentary. It isn’t about outrage at an injustice, or illuminating an environmental crisis or a hagiography about a famous band or musician or a portrait of person trying to save a species.

The whole story is long and complicated :)
It is indeed.

It is a film about the human condition and the biggest question we ask ourselves: why am I here? It’s a film about legacy, devotion, perseverance.

I never actually saw this as a problem, quite the opposite, in fact, and as I begin submitting the film to festivals, I’m hopeful that festivals will not see it as a problem, either. I’m hopeful it will stick out among the bazillion of call-to-action films they’ll watch, and they will recognize it as a unique, thoughtful, and engaging film.


We’re still putting the finishing touches on A Life’s Work and have run into some unexpected expenses. We could use your support. Helping out couldn’t be easier. Click the button and it’ll take you to a simple, no-muss-no-fuss form. All amounts help. Really, truly, honestly, they do.

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Thank You 2017

Since 2009 I have thanked the people who supported me or the film during the year. This Thanksgiving, like the past eight Thanksgivings, there are many people to thank.

Anton Shelupanov, Peter Kellman, Jennifer March, Cassandra Graham Hall. Sam Richman, Dr. Sarah Terry, Ileen Katz, Gerry Wrixon, Rebecca Huset, Puffin Foundation, Yip Harburg Foundation, Ernie, Deena and Ben Harburg, Debra Giannini, John Egan, Justin Bosch, Lucas Sanoff, everyone at the MacDowell Colony, Ann Hayashi, Colette Fu, Ayelet Waldman, Levan Hawkins, Eva HD, Charlie Kaufman, Karen Ostrom, Hasan Elahi, Sam, Sax, Julian Kreimer, Alice Attie, Katie Chase, Shaun Irons, Lauren Petty, Gohar Dashti, Ladi Opaluwa, Carson Kreitzer, Catherine Venable Moore, Moko Fukuyama, Bizzy Coy, A’Lelia Bundles, Dennis Earl, Kala Pierson, Michael Mount, Michael Waugh, Riva Lehrer, Margeaux Walter, Sarah Scoles, David Moeller, Natasha Dachos, Denise Valenti, Aida Zilelian Silak, Janet Parks, Gretchen Knudsen, Menchi Wong, John Bohn, Stacy Kass, Jay Walljasper, Ken Sirulnick, Glue Editing & Design, Laura Villa Baroncelli, David Frank, Matthew Salzer, Jonah Volk, Andrew Baker, Nic Bishop, Alison Schreiber, Chris Robertson, Jessica Berman-Bogdan, and Mark Turney.


Continued thanks to these people (crowdfund supporters),  these people (2016),  these people (2015), these people (2014),  these people (2013), these people (2012), these people (2011), these people (2010), and these people (2009). If you’re reading this, you are most likely thanked on one of those pages.

Interview with Claire Carter, Curator of the Paolo Soleri: Mesa City to Arcosanti Show at SMoCA

I met Claire Carter in 2015 at Arcosanti, in the cafe, while having lunch with Jeff Stein. She told me about an exhibit she was curating about Soleri — which was going up in what seemed like the way, way, WAY distant future. I put forth the idea of doing an interview for the blog, and she agreed to do it when the exhibit opened. Lo! It has opened!   You can see Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) from now until January 28, 2018.

How did you come to be a curator, and specifically, work with Soleri artifacts?

In the 1980s, the city of Scottsdale commissioned a bridge design from Soleri. Due to political roadblocks, it was delayed until 2011. When the project was revitalized in the 2000s, Scottsdale Public Art, a sister institution to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art where I am a curator, managed the construction of the bridge and installation of original artwork by Soleri. In the spirit of collaboration, the museum decided to present an exhibition of Soleri’s bridge designs. I was assigned by our (now former) director Timothy Rodgers to steward the project. Working in the archives was a revelation and both Dr. Rodgers and I proposed a three-exhibition series to the Foundation.

Claire Carter and Paolo Soleri (2011). Photo by Claire Warden

This isn’t the only Soleri exhibit you curated, is that right?

In 2013 SMoCA presented the exhibition Paolo Soleri: Mesa City to Arcosanti. The show focused on Soleri’s three largest conceptual cities—Mesa City, Macro-Cosanti and Arcosanti. It was structured around two large scrolls and an early model of Arcosanti made of acrylic. It also provided photographic documentation of the Silt Pile and Arcosanti workshops, as well as construction of Arcosanti from 1969 – today.

What can we expect to see in Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature?

I conceptualized this final exhibition in the series as a retrospective of Soleri’s work. I thought it was important to survey the variety of mediums Soleri explored: drawing, sculpture, carving, painting, ceramics, bronze and aluminum casting, earth cast concrete construction and silt cast slab construction, among others. I wanted to include his craft production as equal to his artwork, as he exhibited all media in international exhibitions. Another overlooked facet of Soleri’s history is how respected he was by his peers and contemporaries. In addition to rare drafts and first edition catalogues, the exhibition also presents a variety of ephemera, posters, fundraising materials, and media coverage including Harpers, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and Vogue. I also wanted to reflect upon how public perception of Soleri began to shift in the mid-1970s after construction on Arcosanti was underway.

And now some photos from Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature at SMoCA. Photos by Chris Loomis.

Soleri was so prolific, how do you decide what to exhibit and what not to exhibit?

Truthfully, it is a really tough process. I have been studying Soleri’s artwork and archives for 8 years and I still question whether I made the right choices. The main problem for curators (usually) is the editing process. I would have happily made the exhibition twice as large. However, the key to a compelling exhibition is culling the extraneous and selecting only the objects that make unique arguments. The exhibition catalogue (essay, footnotes, annotated bibliography) is the place to provide the reader greater access to my research and provide a deeper analysis than is possible in gallery texts.

What are, for you, the stand out pieces of this show? Why?

I am very proud that we have on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, New York a model of Dome House Soleri constructed in 1951. It has never been exhibited in Arizona, despite the fact that Dome House was built here in the Phoenix valley and is still inhabited. My favorite scroll in the exhibition is from 1960 called History of Man .

From Soleri’s craft practice, we have almost twenty examples of very early ceramic bells on loan from private collectors. Last, I am very proud to display three bridge models misplaced in 1971 that we rediscovered during my research. The museum has since stored and conserved the models and after the exhibition they will return home to the foundation archives at Arcosanti.

Is there anything you’d like to have but can’t get your hands on?

Oh yes, so many things. I would love to have examples of the ceramic vases, lampshades and table legs Soleri made in the 1960s. There is a spectacular bronze lantern almost 20 inches high that appears in a photograph of Cosanti taken by Charles Eames dating from the early 1960s. I found it listed in an exhibition catalogue the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York titled Light Vase and documented in the American Craft Council archives. However, none of the publications include the owner, so I was unable to track it down. I also would have loved to present the massive cardboard model 3-D Jersey, a design for an integrated city/airport Soleri proposed in 1968. Unfortunately the model was destroyed sometime after the 1969 Corcoran exhibition, The Architectural Vision of Paolo Soleri.

Are there more Soleri shows to be put on?

Absolutely! Soleri worked prolifically for over 60 years—drawing, sculpting, drafting and writing. There is a wealth of material to exhume that I wasn’t able to include in our project. As for SMoCA, I doubt the museum will present another solo exhibition of Soleri. He is the only artist to whom we have devoted a multi-part exhibition series and I believe we feel like we successfully presented new research as well as helped conserve and preserve artworks key to Arizona’s artistic patrimony.

Thanks, Claire!

Claire C. Carter is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art where she has curated visual art, architecture and design since 2007. Among her recent original exhibitions are Sama Alshaibi: Silsila (currently on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University); Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns; and The Five Senses: Janet Cardiff, Olafur Eliasson, Spencer Finch, Roelof Louw, Ernesto Neto. Her projects have been supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. She is an author of three internationally distributed books and has received awards from the American Alliance of Museums, the American Institute for Graphic Arts and the Association of Art Museum Curators. Her latest exhibition, Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature, runs from October 14, 2017 to January 28, 2018.

I Will Be Anthologized

20 months ago I wrote these two sentences in a draft for this here blog.

One of my stories, The Wolf Is in the Kitchen, has been chosen for an anthology called Two-Countries.

Publication date (or as all my writer friends say, “pub date”) is fall 2017, which seems forever away.

For whatever reason, I never did write the rest. And here it is, fall 2017, forever away, and the book is to be published on October 17. (You can order it now on Amazon.)

Two Countries: U.S. Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents (Red Hen Press) is an anthology of flash memoir, personal essays and poetry from over sixty writers who were either born and/or raised in the U.S. by one or more immigrant parent. These works describe the many contradictions, discoveries, and life lessons one experiences when one is neither seen as fully American nor fully foreign.

Here’s a brief video about the anthology featuring its editor, Tina Schumann.

I couldn’t be prouder that my little slice of memoir has been included in this book, which is so timely, but also timeless.


If you find yourself in New York, NY on Friday, October 20, 7:00 – 9:30 p.m., I’ll be one of eleven writers reading their work from the anthology. The event will take place at the legendary Bluestockings Bookstore, Café, and Activist Center, 172 Allen Street. I’ll be reading my very short piece, The Wolf Is in the Kitchen. I hope you can make it.




Picture Lock

Many years ago, I think I was maybe 24 or 25, I was walking a dog named Chloe and wondering how Jackson Pollack knew when his drip paintings were finished.

Jackson Pollock Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950
Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950

As I pondered, Chloe assumed her doggie poop position, dropped her load, and boom! It hit me. He knew instinctively, like Chloe knew when she finished doing her business — he felt it in his gut! Or maybe in his bones. Or maybe somewhere else, but he felt it.

Years later, when I started going to artist residencies and hanging out with painters I would ask them the same question. Most said something like, “When I see that I’m not improving the painting with more brushstrokes,” which ultimately comes down to it’s done when I feel like I cannot improve it.

And so, it is with great pleasure that I am announcing that A Life’s Work is done. Mostly.  I have spoken those two scary words, “picture lock” and have given my digital files to the color corrector and the sound mixer. This means there will be no more shooting and there will be no more editing.

What Is Picture Lock?

I qualified with “mostly” because the music is still being worked on and the credits need to be tackled. But essentially, it is done. And it is done because I feel there is nothing more I can do to it to make it better.

This feeling of done-ness was validated when I showed the film to cinematographers, Andy Bowley and Wolfgang Held, each of whom shot about 44% of the film. They weighed in with specific suggestions, terrific suggestions, most of which I took because I knew they would improve the film. I don’t want to say they were small suggestions, because they weren’t, but they weren’t big structural changes. They were changes or additions that were simple to do — put music here, think about removing that shot, things like that. Their few focused, excellent comments told me they thought the film was done, too.

And so, now to finish up the music.

Coincidentally, the day I completed this blog post, I listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast called Hallelujah, having no idea what it was about.  From his Revisionist History site: “‘Hallelujah‘ is about the role that time and iteration play in the production of genius, and how some of the most memorable works of art had modest and undistinguished births.” It uses as its example an obscure Elvis Costello, Cezanne’s paintings, and the often covered song by Leonard Cohen.

As always, thanks for reading. And if you have the time and desire, leave a comment, I love hearing from you.

Though the film is “done” it could still use your support for many things such as: paying the sound mixer,  having the film made into a DCP file for festival screenings, closed captioning, E&O insurance, legal fees, festival fees, and on and on. So if you’d care to help out, all you have to do click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute. $4,000 covers the immediate need to get the film in shape for the Sundance Film Festival application. Pretty exciting, right?

Click the button, that’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? You can give as little as $5 and as much as $50,000. And to be honest, I would rather have 800 people contribute $5 each than one person write a $4,000 check.

Five Questions for Sarah Scoles, Author of “Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”

Sarah Scoles, Science Writer

In April 2017, Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute, told me that there was a biography of Jill Tarter coming out in July. I was thrilled when I later heard that it was written by Sarah Scoles, a contributor to Wired Science. Last year when I was trying to get people interested in the crowdfunding campaign, Sarah and I volleyed some emails, and I was thrilled when she remembered me and agreed to do this mini interview. So, here’s Five Questions For…  science writer Sarah Scoles, author of the just published biography, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Making Contact by Sarah ScolesWhat drew you to write about Jill?

My first introduction to Jill Tarter came in fictional form, when I watched the movie Contact on a Friday night with my family. In Contact, a character named Ellie Arroway–partly inspired by Jill–champions the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and (unlike the SETI story in real life!) does find aliens. I had been interested in astronomy for years before that, since I was very young, but I didn’t know that anyone searched for extraterrestrial life in a really serious way. It was a huge revelation to realize that, and then, later, to realize there was this actual person who did the same thing. I thought the questions that the fictional character and the real Jill wanted to answer–How did we get here? Who else is out there?–were so compelling, and they led me into the world of radio astronomy. I ended up writing about that field, rather than being a researcher in it, and so when I decided I wanted to write a book, I thought about what had first inspired me to enter this particular kind of astronomy–SETI and Jill–and thought maybe others would be similarly interested and inspired.

What about her surprised you the most?

I think I was most surprised by how interested Jill is in this planet, and life here on Earth. I guess in some slightly subconscious way, I thought she must spend all her mental energy thinking about things beyond Earth. But she is very curious about and invested in understanding things close to home. One summer, I went with Jill and some of the SETI Institute’s interns to far northern California, where the Institute runs an observatory called the Allen Telescope Array. While there, we all trekked up to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where some Institute scientists study the extreme life that lives at high altitudes, in snow, and in the hydrothermal pools flanking the old volcano. Jill not only stopped at every single interpretive sign and read the whole thing but also, at one point, stopped to do a calculation of how hot a given lava rock must have been if it took X number of months to cool off.

What’s the process of writing a book like this? How many interviews/how many hours, how much research, and related to this, how long did it take from concept to final draft to publication date?

From concept to publication date, the process took about three years, although there were only about six months when I was able to work primarily on the book. The rest of the time, I was also a full-time freelancer, writing magazine stories. To start the book, I left my job as an editor at Astronomy magazine and moved to California, where Jill lives, so that we could meet regularly without my having to buy 5,000 plane tickets. We met once or twice a month for about a year, and we would sit in her house or at the SETI Institute and do 2-3-hour interviews. Sometimes, we worked from a list she had of the “top 100 moments” in her life; sometimes, we would go through file cabinets of old scientific papers and conference proceedings; sometimes, we would check out the many photo albums she has going back decades. On my own, I read most of the SETI books out there, to know what other writers had already said; I read science journal articles about exoplanets and astrobiology and radio signal processing; I got archival newspaper subscriptions to see what people were saying about SETI throughout history; I used Google images to find pictures of the places she’d been that I hadn’t, and how they looked 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Then, I talked to others in the field who knew or had worked with her, to see how their perspectives matched up or didn’t. It was…a lot of work! But a fun challenge to try to recreate a scene in a place and for an event I didn’t myself witness.

You’re a professional science writer, the idea of “alternative facts” and “disbelief” in science must rankle you. Any thoughts on how we got here?

I think both “alternative facts” and “disbelief” in science have always been around. I don’t think they represent a new phenomenon. I think Galileo and Copernicus, both of whom caught the eye of the Inquisitioners because their data and ideas didn’t place Earth at the center of the universe, would agree with that. And then there are the snake oil salespeople, literal and proverbial, who’ve been literally and proverbially successful for more than a century. I think in recent decades, the discoveries of science have had more bearing on daily life than they may have in the past — not that they didn’t always have some or significant bearing — as technology dominates, climate changes, bacteria resist, etc. And so science is more in the public conversation and communal life, which means opposition is, too.

In my film, Jill talks about Sputnik inspiring Americans to go into scientific fields. When I was a kid, it was the space program. Do we need something similar to that (sending humans to Mars, for example) to inspire the next generation and get out of this Dark Ages world view we seem to have regressed to?

I think I have a slightly less pessimistic view on this! While there’s certainly darkness and “anti-science” sentiment out there, I think it’s fairly matched by others’ interest and enthusiasm. We live in an incredibly productive time, scientifically. Scientists produce more results, take more data, and affect our world arguably more than they ever have in the past. In a report called “Condition of STEM 2016,” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the ACT organization found that about half of high-school graduates who took the ACT are interested in STEM majors and careers. Granted, ACT-takers represent a biased sample; not all of those students will go into STEM careers; and schools don’t prepare all demographics equally for STEM fields. But I think The Youth do care about science and technology, and do want to contribute to those fields. That said, a mission to Mars would certainly light a fire, rocket pun intended, under a lot of students.

Want more? Check out Sarah’s interview about the book and Tarter in The Atlantic.

Sarah Scoles, science writer.Sarah Scoles is a freelance science writer and a contributor at WIRED Science. (If you haven’t read A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a Super-Bunker that Can Survive Anything, check it out. It will blow your mind.) She lives in Denver, Colorado, and formerly worked at Astronomy magazine and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in Green Bank, West Virginia, where the first SETI experiment took place. She enjoys running up mountains and reading short story collections.

Order Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence on Amazon.

Cover photo of the Allen Telescope Array by Sarah Scoles.

Thank You, Puffin Foundation!

Acceptance letter

Last week, I went to my mailbox expecting nothing, but hoping for something  — a note from an old friend, a  card with a bird’s feather in it, anything. It’s rare I receive actual mail these days, and if you’re my Facebook friend you probably have seen my celebratory posts when I do receive real mail that isn’t junk mail.

To my surprise, there was an envelope  addressed by hand in my little metal mailbox. I reached in, pulled it out and before I closed and locked the door, I saw it was from the Puffin Foundation. I had applied for a grant in December 2016, and kind of forgot the notification date was July.

Looking at the envelope, I was certain it was a rejection letter. After all, 99% of the time that’s what they are. And I’ve applied several times for a Puffin grant and been rejected each time. On my way to the elevator I thought about just tearing it in half,  decided to open it, so I used my key to slice the top open. I was surprised to find more than one sheet of paper in the envelope. Usually a rejection is kept to one sheet,  economical, short, and not so sweet. Removing the papers I also saw what could only be the back of a check! Yippee!!!! I received a grant from the super awesome Puffin Foundation.

The Puffin Foundation is based in a small New Jersey town adjoining the one I grew up in, so it kind of feels like a gift from the homeland.  And it couldn’t have come at a better time for A Life’s Work ! It is a tremendous financial lift, but also a welcome psychological and emotional lift as I head into the nerve-wracking final phases of post-production.

As of the date of this post, we’re still looking for about $7,000 so that we can get the film into a finished and beautiful enough state for the Sundance Film Festival application deadline (early September). If you’d like to help us reach that goal, consider contributing $5 or $10 to A Life’s Work. It’s super easy to do via the New York Foundation for the Arts web site, and it’s super secure, too. 

The Nicest People in the World

Laboratory for Tree Ring Research U of AZ

Many years ago, when A Life’s Work was granted fiscal sponsorship by the New York Foundation for the Arts, I met with a NYFA advisor. She was a wonderful woman, a filmmaker, with positive energy emanating from every pore. She looked at the people I had lined up to work on the film and commended me on my choices. I told her a few of them had agreed to work for rates well below what they usually charged, below the friend rate, even. The advisor said, “It always amazes me. In the film business, you meet with the nicest people in the world, and the … not nicest people in the world.”

I interacted with both recently. And in a previous draft of this post I included the latter but I’ve cut it because there’s more than enough negativity going around. So here, the latest instance of dealing with the nicest people.

Laboratory for Tree Ring Research U of AZ
Matthew Salzer in front of a 1,407 year-old giant sequoia from California.

In January I went to Tucson, AZ, for a pick up shoot at the Laboratory for Tree Ring Research; they have a couple of crosscuts of the Prometheus tree there and I needed those shots for the film. I had been using a placeholder, a couple of stylized shots taken from a Nova episode I digitize from a VHS. When I reached out to license that footage, the company that owned it wanted an obscene amount for 10 seconds. So obscene that flying out to AZ, renting a car, buying meals and gas, all of it, would be significantly cheaper. And I’d get the footage I wanted.

Canon 5D on slider

I lined up the logistics of the shoot with Professor Matthew Salzer of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory for Tree Ring Research and needed only one thing. A camera. (My camera is obsolete.) I considered renting one and looked at prices, and they were reasonable, but being the poor, cheapskate that I am, I asked filmmaker, collaborator, and dear friend Wolfgang Held if he had a camera he didn’t need that week and would he consider renting it to me. He offered me his Canon 5D, two lenses, some other accessories, and a traveling bag. And he would not rent it, but he would lend it to me. I was  deeply moved by my friend’s generosity.

I paid him back with lunch and a thousand thank yous. But I like to think I paid him back in another way, too.  Enter my colleague at the education factory, Sam Richman.

When I was about 13 and developing an interest in photography, my father brought home a camera bag with an old Pentax 35mm and some lenses; apparently, “they had fallen off a truck.” Inspired by cinematographer Andy Bowley’s use of funky lenses, I brought them into work for possible use with our 7D. Sam and I played with them a bit, and then into the factory’s camera bag they went.

About a month later, Sam asked if he could borrow my 35mm lens (the one in the foreground) for a personal project.  I didn’t ask about the project or how long he’d need it, but said yes without hesitation. He borrowed it for a weekend and on Monday he showed me why he needed a slightly wide lens.

Here is the result: a video he made with his band for NPR’s Tiny Desk competition. Sam is on drums.

Sam paid me back with enchiladas. Later he told me he finds himself helping out his friends’ film projects just to help them out.

And so it goes. You’ve got to  keep the giving in circulation.

Do you have a favorite pay-it-forward story? How about sharing it in the comments below!

Big shout out to Matt, who made the shoot stress-free.

If you’d like to pay it forward by helping out A Life’s Work, you can do so by clicking the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute. All we need is $10,000 for color correcting and sound mixing and then the film will be ready to go into the world!  Pretty exciting, right?

Click the button, that’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting, too!


Documenting a Time and a Place: Meryl Meisler, Photographer and Artist

photography by Meryl Meisler

I met Meryl Meisler  in the late 90s. I was working for an education nonprofit and Meryl, a NYC teacher, was on their board. We hit it off immediately and have stayed in touch long after the nonprofit fell apart.

It’s been such a pleasure witnessing the well-deserved press Meryl’s documentary photography work has been getting over the last few years.

Meryl’s work does not focus on any of the four subjects featured in A Life’s Work. So why did I want to interview her? In addition to being a good friend, a wonderful person, and a fantastic artist, I am interested in anything or anyone with a very long view. And certainly Meryl fits in that category. As she says, “Making art is a process; it is my life’s work.”

When you were taking these photos, what were you intending to do with them?

These photographs were part of my Masters thesis exhibit at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My exhibit consisted of drawings/illustrations and B&W photographic prints. They served their original purpose — to create a body of work and “defend” it in questioning with my thesis committee. The same photographs were used in a portfolio to be admitted to Lisette Model’s class at the New School when I moved to NYC in 1975. I kept pursuing the photographs of (predominantly Jewish) Long Island family and friends, and enrolled in a photography book course with Bob Adelman. He set me up with a writer to submit a proposal to a publishing company he was associated with, and the proposal was not accepted. I kept doing the series anyway, and in 1978, the work successfully helped me receive a C.E.T.A. project Artist position as a documentary photographer for the American Jewish Congress (AJC). I created a photographic archive of “Jewish New York” for AJC, which also included my personal project, interviewing and photographing extended family members to learn about my Eastern European Jewish roots and immigrating to the USA.

In the midst of all this, I was a young person coming of age in NYC in the 1970s and loving it. I carried my camera everywhere I went  —  clubs, discos, beach scenes, parties, on the streets day and night. My camera was my best friend and diary.

I was working as a freelance illustrator but photography was my passion. I set up a darkroom in the laundry room of my cousin’s building where I rented a room. Photography was and still is my passion and art. Several important people in the photography world, Cornell Capa and Lisette Model among them, were highly encouraging of my work — they saw something special in it. I thought I would be definitely famous by time I was 30. Alas, that did not happen. Perhaps that notion of fame might come by 75?

While working as a C.E.T.A. artist for AJC, we had to do community service. I chose to teach photography to homebound handicapped adults and to children. Even though my Bachelors degree was in art education, I was scared to teach. The community service work helped build up my confidence. When CETA ended in 1979, I was still doing freelance illustration work but the bills were coming in faster than the paychecks. I needed a steady job. The CETA teaching experience helped build my teaching confidence and portfolio. I became a NYC Public School Art Teacher, teaching photography four days a week “per diem” (no benefits) to elementary school students in the Learning to Read Through The Arts Program in September 1979.  When a full time art teaching position with benefits opened up in Bushwick, December 1981, I started carrying a point and shoot camera to photograph going to and from school. When I began teaching, there was much less time for going out at night photographing or spending hours in the darkroom. I started working with color slide film and 35mm format because I needed to, wanted to photograph what I was witnessing and where I was going. I had a solo exhibit “School and Surroundings” in 1984 and it was prohibitively expensive for me to have archival Cibachrome color prints made on my teacher’s salary. I couldn’t afford to keep making the prints, but never stopped photographing. I started painting illustratively on some of the “bad” archival prints of Bushwick. The painted photographs of Bushwick was the body of work that was awarded a NYFA fellowship.

Throughout my 31 year career as a NYC public school art teacher I always worked on my own artwork — continuously exhibiting, applying for and sometimes receiving grants and commissions. I was always plugging away.

The Disco, Go-Go and other “decadent” nightlife photos were never exhibited. It would have put me at risk of losing my job and means of support. Upon retirement from the NYC public schools in 2010, I had more time to focus on getting my work “out there.”

What has it been like for you to go through so many photos that you took more than 30 years ago?

I’ve come to realize that for me, photography is a form of memoir. The photographs are like diary entries from 40 years ago. The moments and emotions are as fresh and still exciting. In the past, I’ve always had trouble editing my work. Time, distance, and the deadline for publishing a book help the decision process immensely. I’m actually impressed with how dynamic my photographs were right from the start and can say to my younger self- you have a good eye, mind, and heart.

Any thoughts or feelings about this work getting discovered instead of work that you’ve done in the last, say, five years?

David, I’ve always fretted that such and such series was too old or worried what will I work on next. For example when you and I met I was working on my NYC Immersions series. It was exhibited in Grand Central Terminal, in a poster throughout the transit system, in the Brooklyn Museum and thankfully a few pieces are permanently installed at the Columbia School of Social Work Library.

It was time to let that series go, “enough with the water,” but I didn’t know what to work on next and that was depressing. Then, a series of wonderful circumstances made me start digging through my Bushwick photographs from the 1980s and I realized how beautiful those images were. I became obsessed with them; I had no idea that they would be deemed historically important and the Bushwick art scene would become so phenomenal and welcoming.

Taking the time to dig through my archives makes me realize I’m always seeing, photographing, playing with brush and pigment. Looking at the past becomes the present. Good work stands the test of time, and ages well.  With the gift of health and well being, I hope to continue digging through the archives and creating. Making art is a process; it is my life’s work.

What’s next?

I’m working on my next book, the third in the ‘70s trilogy. This one will make my first my first two books seem timid. I have to put the ‘70s in perspective to prepare for the subsequent chapters in this memoir continuously in the making.

Currently I’m documenting Resistance marches and rallies to show to the world we will not let the 45th administration destroy our country, heart and soul. In a new phase, hoping to get the urgent messages out to larger audience, I reported on the Women’s March on Washington for VICE  and protests against Muslim Ban for Gothamist . Photographs from several marches will be hand painted and installed at a group exhibit “Fractured Union” at Brooklyn Fire Proof, 119 Ingraham St., Brooklyn. The exhibit opening reception is Friday May 12th 6 – 9PM and runs through June 2017.

I’ll be in a show of Brooklyn Photographers at BRIC house in September, and hopefully another solo show during Bushwick Open Studios in October. I’m working on a new series of self-portraits, returning to painting with photography. Then, I also want to continue finding, interviewing and photographing people who were in or knew the people and places in my Bushwick 1980s photos as a follow-up book to Disco Era Bushwick.

The most extensive body of my work that has yet to be seen is my 36 years from an insider’s point of view of NYC schools. I photographed throughout my career as a NYC teacher, and continued photographing 2011- 2015 as the NYU Art Education Field Supervisor, overseeing student teachers in both private and public schools.

With the gift of health and well-being, I hope to continue digging through the archives and creating new work for many years to come.

Thank you, Meryl.


Meryl Meisler is the author of the internationally acclaimed books A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick,  and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City.

You can read and see more of Meryl’s work in these publications.

The New Yorker – Andrea DenHoed – February 28, 2017
Backstage At The Ringling Brothers Circus, 1977

The New Yorker – Genevieve Fussell – June 3, 2015
Seventies Long Island: The Whole Mishpocha

The New Yorker – Genevieve Fussell – August 7, 2014
Meryl Meisler’s Disco Era

New York Times – Jonathan Mahler  – June 13, 2014
Stayin’ Alive

A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick 

Vice Video