Fun-loving portraits of American suburban life in the 70s

Fun-loving portraits of American suburban life in the 70s

Photographer Meryl Meisler turns the lens on her idyllic Long Island childhood and the playful, campy suburbs that served as a backdrop to it.

The idyllic hamlet of Massapequa takes its name from a band of Lenape people who called the Southern Shore of Long Island home for thousands of years. By the mid-twentieth century, the booming town had acquired a new name  - “Matzoh Pizza” - in honor of its flourishing Jewish and Italian communities who decamped to the suburbs after World War II.

“When my family bought the house back in 1954, it was all vegetable farms,” says Bronx-born, Massapequa-raised photographer Meryl Meisler. “I grew up while the town was being built. Everyone’s house was new and over the top in some way. Most people bought a house on the G.I. Bill for under $15,000 and it was probably the first time their family owned a home so they could decorate any way they wanted.”

And did they ever! In her first solo museum exhibition, 70s Suburban Sensibilities – Family and Friends, Meisler takes us back to her roots in a delightful romp, celebrating the campy styling of 1970s suburban life.

“Play was a big part of my childhood and in retrospect, it was sacred because you didn’t worry about going outside. The suburbs were an escape to what was deemed ‘a safer environment,’” says Meisler. “We were the Baby Boomers and it seemed like it was being invented for you.”

Meisler fondly recalls Girl Scouts, tap, ballet, Bar Mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens, school dances, and prom – but even as a teen she knew staying in the ‘burbs after graduation was not her destiny.

While pursuing her studies in art education, Meisler took a photography course and decided to turn the camera on herself. Inspired by the work of French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, Meisler began photographing herself, her family, and friends to create a picture-perfect portrait of Long Island suburbia.

Ronda Winking With a Cigarette, The Mystery Club, Seaford NY, June 1975

For Meisler, photography was a natural extension of play and became easily integrated into all aspects of her life. “I grew up in a family where taking pictures was a normal activity,” says Meisler, whose father and paternal grandfather were devoted amateur photographers.

They immediately understood Meisler’s vision and joyously played their parts, with the family house enjoying a prominent supporting role with its theatrical glamour and pomp. At a time when the art establishment conflated family and vernacular photography, Meisler followed her muse, crafting a mesmerizing portrait of 1970s suburbia.

Pointing to the 1973 photograph she made of a woman working at a perfume counter in Bloomingdales, Meisler recognizes this as one of the very first works to articulate her aesthetic sensibilities.

“We all have a way of seeing, experiencing, and processing the world that gets refined before we have the words for it. We all have our own style; we just have to uncover, dust it off, and recognize it,” Meisler says.

“I look back at these early works and realised I’m the same person and I see the same way. You don’t know it at the time, but in retrospect it’s a sign of things to come.”

70s Suburban Sensibilities — Family and Friends: Meryl Meisler is on view May 19-September 2, 2023 at the Zillman Art Museum at the University of Maine in Bangor, Maine.