Martha Cooper: Still Snappin'
Martha Cooper, January 2019
"Martha: A Picture Story" filmmaker Selina Miles
The Internet teems with photographers of graffiti and street art, people who are today as likely to be shooting spray-paint murals on the manicured patios of hotels and restaurants as they are in train lay-ups or abandoned buildings. The ready supply of legal public art productions in NYC and other urban hubs provides shutterbugs with an unending stream of vibrant, non-moving targets that require neither stealth nor privileged artist connections to find and capture.
Actual cameras are no longer required: in good natural light, cell phones shoot near-professional images. The iPhone 11 -- slated for release in four months -- boasts a 12-megapixel sensor, carries built-in telephoto and wide-angle lenses, and employs an LED flash that's brighter and more penetrating than that on any current model.
It is amid this swarming ubiquity that Martha Cooper, now in her mid-70s, is still thriving as a professional photographer, particularly recognized for her graffiti shots in publications like 1984's Subway Art (co-authored with Henry Chalfant). At this writing Cooper's latest post was just an hour ago, a photo taken in the Mongolian steppes of children riding a donkey. Age has failed to alter her frenetic schedule of photography and world travel, a notion tersely encapsulated in her Instagram bio: "Still Snappin'.'"
Martha Cooper's photography continues to be regarded as "pivotal recording" in the evolution of graffiti and hip-hop culture. At least 14 publications currently online describe -- not her photography, but Martha Cooper herself -- as "a legend" or "legendary."
But while the descriptive "legendary" packs a wallop, it's scant on particulars.
How have Martha Cooper's photographs of graffiti and street art retained their singular reverence? With insight my goal, I read as much as I could about Martha Cooper and attended these two events:
A screening of "Martha: A Picture Story," a Martha Cooper documentary by Australian film director Selina Miles, which had its world premiere April 25th at Tribeca Film Festival. The film was followed by a Q&A with A) the film's producer, Daniel Joyce B) Martha Cooper, C) Brooklyn Street Art (BSA)'s Editor-in-Chief Steven P. Harrington, D) BSA's Editor-of-Photography Jaime Rojo -- both Harrington and Rojo were featured in the film and friends not only of Martha Cooper, but also of director Selina Miles.
A panel moderated by culture critic / curator Carlo McCormick and featuring Martha Cooper, legendary British-born punk rock / hip-hop photographer Janette Beckman, and photojournalist Miranda Barnes, whose work has been featured in The New York Times and W Magazine, among other publications. [May 14th, "Cultural Lens" panel for a live Radio Juxtapoz podcast, Vault by Vans, 219 Bowery]
Here are some insights into what makes Martha Cooper unique in a world conspicuously bloated with camera-toting "influencers":
1) Cooper Documented Culture, Not Art
Martha Cooper was not the first photographer to turn her lens on graffiti. In 1974 — several years before Cooper was hired by the "New York Post" -- British medical-writer-turned-photographer Jon Naar released The Faith of Graffiti, its introduction penned by none other than Norman Mailer. The tome was hailed as a "bible to later graffiti artists" by Brian Wallis, former (1999-2015) chief curator at the International Center of Photography.
At least two additional graffiti photographers predate Cooper: Jack Stewart, who photographed Riff170’s “WORM” and Jester’s “JESTER” on subway cars in 1972, and Flint Gennari, a graffiti writer whose photos span 1970-1977 .
But Cooper's work stands alone in its meticulous documentation of graffiti culture, not merely of the art form's creators, tags, throwies, pieces, and productions. Her photos do more than record, they instruct.
A single example: One of Cooper's photos in RIP: Memorial Wall Art from 1994 shows TatsCru writing "Bertolucci" in a wall production to memorialize Nuyorican Alberto Silverio -- "Bertolucci" was his nickname. Within Cooper's investigative lens, neither TatsCru nor their mural is front-and-center. It's the assemblage around the emerging art she showcases; the arc of men in solemn vigil seated in chairs borrowed from the adjacent pool hall. This is not merely a snapshot of art going up -- it's testament to a mourning community paying tribute to one of its fallen.
2) She Immediately Recognized Graffiti For What it Was and What It Wasn't
Unlike graffiti-writer-turned-photographer Flint Gennari (see above), Cooper stood outside graffiti culture when she began to document its art and artists. Yet she immediately understood that graffiti writers were designers of meticulously crafted logos, not broadly lawless "ghetto kids" (see link) acting out with spur-of-the-moment, nonsensical scribbling.
In a 2016 TEDx Vienna Talk published 12/14/16, Cooper explained: "One day, I met a boy who I had photographed [in the past], and he showed me his drawing in his notebook. And he explained to me that he was practicing his name -- his nickname, which was HE-3 -- to paint on the wall. And he asked me: 'Why don't you take pictures of graffiti?' And actually I had never really understood that graffiti were actually nicknames that kids had written on the wall. And as soon as he showed me that notebook and I saw that he was basically a designer designing a logo, I became interested."
3) She Is Singularly Adored by the Artists She Shoots
No other photographer has has received a 70th birthday surprise of her very own Houston Bowery wall production, created by graffiti A-listers How/Nosm, Lady Pink, Bio, Crash, Daze, Freedom, Free5,Terror 161, Faust, and Aiko. In Selina Miles's documentary "Martha: a Picture Story," after Cooper photographs graffiti artists How and Nosm at work, she requests a posed shot. The identical twin artists -- usually loathe to arrange themselves for a camera -- reply: "Only for Martha," with a chuckle.
Prominent graffiti writers like BIO (Tats Cru) and DUSTER (UA crew) respect Cooper's resolve to place herself in unfamiliar -- i.e. "risky" -- environs in pursuit of thorough, authentic documentation.
"I think our first actual meeting was when she was working on RIP Memorial Wall Art (book pictured here) with Joseph Sciorra, recalls BIO. And I remember when we were doing the wall and she was actually there with us, and there was a shootout. And NICER (Tats Cru) was like pulling Marty, telling her 'go this way, go that way,' and I'm like 'NICER, stay still -- you're gonna get Marty shot!'"
BIO of Tats Cru, Bronx
Duster at The Drip Project, Mount Vernon
"Trusting someone that was willing to take the [same] chances that you were taking seemed like a smart thing," says DUSTER. Besides, we [graffiti writers] had no skills at taking photographs and film cost money -- we were young."
"Marty was willing to go into tracks with people, do whatever. And she's still doing all that," adds BIO.
A testament to the endurance of Cooper's connection with artists across time is evident in "Martha: A Picture Story," which shows Carlos Mare139, Skeme3, and Lee Quinones -- all born early to mid 1960s -- giving present-day interviews alongside photos Cooper took of each in the late '70s / early '80s.
4) She Is Neither Artist Nor Photojournalist
Cooper in a 2016 TEDx Vienna Talk: "I'm not really interested in dramatic lighting, I'm not interested in very unusual angles. I don't really want to be an artist, I think of myself as a documenter. And today, I think I do exactly the same kind of photography that I did back then."
May 14th, "Cultural Lens" event (2nd bullet point above). Cooper on photojournalism: "I don't call myself a photojournalist, I call myself a documentary photographer. I consider journalism to be more news-worthy subjects. I prefer feature subjects, and as a freelancer, I get to pick my subjects."
5) She Prefers to Document Illegal over Legal Art
A frenetically-paced scene from "Martha: A Picture Story" shows Cooper documenting Berlin-based 1UP crew as they barrel through a U-Bahn station, festooning its interior in massive black smiley-faces. 1UP used paint-loaded fire extinguishers for this, which fortified the paint-jets with astonishing power and coverage.
Cooper in the Q&A following the screening: "It's way more exciting to try to take pictures of the illegal activities. Legal walls are very interesting, and I do take a lot of pictures of those, but you can stand there for hours in front of the wall, basically watching the paint dry. The artist is usually there painting, and you're shooting from the back, and you're maybe waiting for that one minute when he turns around and looks at you. The process of shooting illegal graffiti is so quick and so exciting compared to the legal walls and also so hard to get, so it's much more of a challenge."
6) Her Love of Graffiti Started as an Interest in Kids Making Their Own Toys
"If you trace back my interest in graffiti, it goes back to seeing kids making their own toys," said Cooper at the "Cultural Lens" panel. "I'm always looking for ways that people are being creative in their daily lives."
In 1975 when Cooper arrived in NYC, the city was close to bankruptcy. Particular swaths of land were dangerous -- filled with boarded up buildings, drug dealing, and vacant lots. But Cooper found these places interesting to photograph as she searched for good weather photos for the "New York Post." One day, she came upon HE-3 (see #2, above) -- then just a boy -- and his route to daily-life creativity: designing letters in a notebook. HE-3 introduced Cooper to graffiti king Dondi, who eventually invited Cooper to accompany him to the yards and see how gigantic train murals were created. The rest is history.
7) She Has Advice for Young Photographers
At the "Martha: A Picture Story" 4/30 Q&A, Cooper advised:
"Follow your instincts and take pictures of something you're really interested in, because no matter what you choose it's going to be a lot of work. Taking the pictures is a lot of work, editing the pictures, archiving the pictures ... it's extremely time consuming, so you better believe in what you're shooting. The only things that mean something for me now are the [photographs] that were my personal projects. It was nice to get the money from the assignments, but they're sort of meaningless to me as subject matter. So I think it's really important to pick a subject that may be something you personally know about, and maybe something that's accessible where you are, so you can keep going back and keep at it."
Janette Beckman, Martha Cooper at Houston Bowery Wall
8) She Resists Being Pigeonholed
"I don't want to be considered a 'graffiti photographer'," said Cooper at Cultural Lens.
Cooper's 2015 "Sowebo/Soweto" show in Baltimore featured side-by-side photographs of kids being creative in both Baltimore's Sowebo (South West Baltimore) community and in Soweto Township, South Africa.
Photographs taken in 1978-79 comprise her current show, "Made In Haiti : Seth and Martha Cooper," which examines the ingenuity of Haitian children who make toys from found objects. Fabien Castanier Gallery, Miami in both Wynwood and Little Haiti -- through June 1st.
9) Her Physical Vitality at Age 76? Probably Not Diet Related.
Martha Cooper has oft been neatly encapsulated online as a "Legendary Graffiti Photographer." I and the rest of us at Sold Magazine, hope this article helps its readers learn more about Cooper and her work.
Selected Martha Cooper photographs will appear in "Beyond The Streets," curated by Roger Gastman. Williamsburg, Brooklyn: June 21st through August.