Life & Culture

Photographs from Bushwig, Brooklyn’s Radical Festival of Drag

Meryl Meisler has been photographing New York City nightlife since the 1970s and Bushwick, Brooklyn since the 1980s. Now, she’s turned her lens to Bushwig, the Brooklyn festival celebrating the neighbourhood’s contemporary drag scene

While RuPaul’s DragCon NYC raged in Manhattan, Bushwig set Brooklyn aflame with a celebration of the LGBTQ avant-garde. The two-day festival presented established acts alongside up-and-coming talents from the neighbourhood, showcasing names like Baby Love, Florida Man, Lady Bunny, Marti Fould, Aja, Merrie Cherry, Nina West and Tammie Brown.

In the mix was American photographer Meryl Meisler, who began documenting New York nightlife and the LGBTQ scene in the mid-70s – and has been an integral part of Bushwick’s flourishing artistic culture for the last decade. “This nightclub scene is very similar to the one of my youth – and I am sure it is very similar to the nightclub scene in the 1920s and 30s,” Meisler tells us. “100 years is nothing in the universe. We are the same generation in this blip of time in history.”

Meisler first became attuned to the burgeoning Bushwick drag scene when her friend Scott Dennis gave his first performance as Madame Vivien V at the Metropolitan Bar in 2012, the very year Bushwig began. At that time, Meisler started collaborating with Jean Stéphane Sauvaire, owner of Bizarre, book publisher and nightclub – who would soon publish Meisler’s first two monographs Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City.

Meisler became a part of the local drag scene when she launched her first book at Bizarre, with Madame Vivien V and Merrie Cherry hosting the evening’s festivities. “I wish I had the energy to stay up until two in the morning all the time. I can’t go out every night but every time I do, I find it absolutely fascinating,” Meisler says, noting that Bushwick is now a far cry from the neighbourhood she once knew as an art teacher working in the New York City public school system during the 1980s.

“I got the woman who is now my wife a job in another school during that time and someone wrote, ‘dyke’ on top of her door,” Meisler remembers. “You wouldn’t dare come out. Gay people knew who each other were but you just didn’t talk about it.”

But with the advent of Bushwig, everything has changed. “Many of the people who are the core come from the neighborhood. This neighborhood had gone through trauma and seemed so homophobic on the surface, but with Generation Z coming in, the drag scene is really big,” Meisler says.

“Sasha Velour went from Bizarre to winning RuPaul’s Drag Race. Aja was volunteering at my openings and has gotten really big. I saw when they were just starting out. It’s not just make up, heels, costume, lip sync and singing. They are the crème de la crème: great talents, hard workers, dancers, choreographers – it is a tight act. God bless them! They should make a living from this. You are giving up everything else to do this.”

Despite the competition, the community is all love. “Everyone is very supportive of one another,” Meisler observes. “The people in the audience are dressed up too. There is a lot of joy here.”

The weekend also reunited Meisler with an old love – after decades out of commission, she brought out the medium format camera once used to photograph the streets and discos of 1970s New York. “I took my old friend out on a date,” Meisler says.

“I am very comfortable with the square format because I am seeing and feeling what’s happening without having to think about whether to take a horizontal or vertical photograph. It’s a more direct translation from my heart-eye-brain. I found my red ruby slippers again.”