Martha Cooper discusses what led to her passion for photographing street art, how one of her photos was chosen for the Art School Without Walls Vol. 6 and why she thinks you should always chase what captivates you
Martha Cooper began documenting graffiti before the art world thought it was cool. Her now iconic photographs from Street Play, taken in the gritty New York City of the 1970s, immortalized the ingenuity of an overlooked and under-appreciated population–city kids making the most of their bleak environment. Through her growing relationship with the children she photographed, Cooper was introduced to the clandestine world of graffiti writing. She began to document the nascent phenomenon obsessively, waiting for phone calls at all hours of the day and night that would tip her off to privy information, such as which train station would debut the latest work. The intrepid Cooper eagerly traversed the city at a moment’s notice to capture the new tags before they was buffed or defaced by others. Many of the images were eventually published in the book Subway Art, for which she is best known.
The rest, as they say, is history, though it is still a distinct history from what is generally taught in school or displayed in museums. That has begun to change in recent years, in no small part thanks to photojournalists like Cooper who paid close attention to a subculture’s mode of expression when no one else cared to. Her willingness and ability to be in the right place at the right time gave permanent representation to otherwise ephemeral works of art. Her work introduced the world at large to a movement that has since become ubiquitous and has earned her the respect of street artists around the world. Like those she documents, Cooper is exuberant about creating something from unlikely sources. As such, her brand of journalism lends itself to not only historicizing relics of days gone by, but also celebrates the spirit of what once was, what is, and always, what could be.
Recently, Martha paid a visit to the Art School Without Walls Vol. 6 headquarters for an interview with Cre8tiveYouTH*ink to share some memories, thoughts and words of wisdom from her accomplished life.
How did you get involved with the Art School Without Walls Vol. 6?
A few years back I met Chris Stain, and he wanted to make some of his stencils based on photos from my book Street Play. Those photos were taken around 1978. They were mostly taken on the Lower East Side but the one used for this mural happens to be in Brooklyn. I took these photos because I had an idea about kids being creative and making toys from trash. So, he later approached me about this project and he wanted to use this particular picture of a boy who made bicycles from junk parts that he found on the street. Of course I said yes. I felt like it fit with the theme of Cre8tive YouTH*ink because it was about kids being creative. You know I have to give Chris credit for choosing this picture because it was never one of my favorites. It’s growing on me!
Right: Martha Cooper’s original photograph from Street Play that inspired the mural Sign Language.
What are some of your favorite photos from Street Play?
My favorite ones are the ones where kids have actually made something. There’s one where they are having a go-kart race from little karts that they’ve made themselves. And another where there are kids playing skully, which is a street game you don’t see very often anymore.
What did you think about the name chosen for the mural?
Oh, I love the name! I helped choose it. Jerry (Mista Oh) originally asked me if I have a name for the picture and I’m like “Boy Getting Bicycle Parts.” You know, I really didn’t have a name. I had worked with Shepard Fairey and he renamed some of my pictures with titles like Defiant Youth, so I realized that you could have a name that went beyond just the literal interpretation of what the boy was doing. But I really didn’t have any ideas, so I told Jerry to just ask the kids for names and let us decide after.
I thought that Sign Language was a great name because it allowed for all kinds of interpretations. I could imagine a teacher asking a class, “well kids what do you think Sign Language means?” It could have pretty much any interpretation. I like that it’s open ended.
How did you begin documenting kids playing in the street?
At the time I worked for the New York Post. I was a staff photographer so I had my camera every day. I was driving around the city, and the Post was on the Lower East Side, so as I went back to the Post, I had two cameras and both usually had film left over. I was able to snap pictures of whatever I saw.
I didn’t realize that by photographing the kids I was also taking pictures of an historic representations of a particular neighborhood. Now it is the trendy East Village but at the time it was full of abandoned buildings. It looked like a war zone.
Were the kids comfortable being photographed?
Of course! They loved being photographed because to them I was 1) paying attention and 2) they saw me as a possible source of fame. I just remember a lot of them saying, “Are you from the news?” ‘Cause they didn’t really understand the difference between a still camera and and a TV camera, at the time.
What made you decide to begin capturing graffiti?
My project of documenting kids being creative actually evolved into my documentation of graffiti. One of the kids that I was taking pictures of on a regular basis showed me his sketches and explained to me that he was putting his name on walls–the New York City style. That was my first introduction to what graffiti was. Before that I had no idea. I didn’t even realize they were writing names. That’s how little I knew about it and most people didn’t know either. You just couldn’t really understand what the kids were writing. You kind of felt like it might be some dirty word or something but then you’d look at the letters and they didn’t make any sense– like “DEZ.” What does that mean?
So, I became fascinated by graffiti, which led into what we now call street art, which is something entirely different. It went from being a super underground thing to being possibly the most predominant art form in the history of the world. That shift is largely due to the internet. Now it’s in every country of the world! There’s still a lot of underground activity but so much of it is above ground as well which is also fun.
At the time, I thought that this could only happen in New York City and it’s not going to be here for very long, and I’m going to have the pictures. I never thought it was going to spread world wide.
How do you think it affects the contemporary art scene?
I think graffiti broke open the art world in some ways. It’s a very egalitarian thing because pretty much anybody could go out and put something on a wall. And you don’t need to go find a gallery to give you a show to have your work seen. That’s such a lengthy process and it is so difficult. And if your work is in a gallery, your work has to be marketable because they need to make enough money to pay rent. Street art can be wheat-pasted, it can be stenciled, whatever.
Do you make aesthetic decisions when taking these kinds of images?
You know, I never really wanted to be an artist. I consider myself as more of a journalist. I always like the pictures where the kids are doing something that their mothers definitely would not want them doing! There is one, for example, of these kids who have wooden guns and a clubhouse in an abandoned building.
How come you didn’t document the corresponding hip hop scene?
I was drawn to the things that happened in the street, under the radar. I didn’t really want to document something that was meant to be seen. For me the challenge was to go out in the streets on a sort of a quest, a treasure hunt. See what I could go find, starting with an idea. The idea of kids being creative gave me that starting point.
And still photography is a perfect way to document art. It’s not a perfect way to document music. You’re not going to hear the music in a still photograph. The sound is more important than the visual for the music so I hardly took any pictures.
If I had known that hip hop was going to blow up and become something so huge, I think I would have paid more attention. If I had shot some of the early hip hop artists, I could have spent less time doing commercial work that I wasn’t interested in. I was in places where Afrika Bambaataa was for example, and I didn’t take any pictures. So, now I shoot everything, just in case.
What sustained your interest in documenting graffiti over the years?
Well, it always came from my own personal interests and regularly finding people who interested me. I majored in art in college [Grinnell College] and I also did a year of graduate study in anthropology [Oxford University]. Street art sort of falls into those categories. It’s culturally relevant, it’s in different communities, and I like to travel. My area of interest has continued to provide me with a life, basically. I have a lot be thankful for. There’s no end to satisfaction.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m doing a project in my hometown of Baltimore. It’s not about street art or graffiti but it is a street photography project. I started out simply documenting this one neighborhood in Baltimore, Sowebo, but was then invited to South Africa for a street art event called “ I ART JOBURG.” It was in Johannesburg and they took me to a place named Soweto and I’m like, “ Oh this looks a lot like Sowebo.” Turned out that Sowebo was actually nicknamed after Soweto. So I wanted to go to Soweto during a regular time and see what the real Soweto was like. Once I saw the similarities between the street life in Sowebo and Soweto, I felt like a could really do something with this. So, I went back last year and am going back again. I’ve just had a lot of fun making these photographic comparisons of both places. I’m not sure what it will lead to yet. I just really wanted to get back to shooting on the streets. Some of my best pictures from this project are similar to the Street Play pictures.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist or a photographer?
I would say follow your interests. At the time I started my street life pictures, I was also doing commercial work, public relations, and all kinds of other things to make money. But none of the pictures I took over the past 30 years on assignment, even including some assignments for high-level magazines like National Geographic, really mean anything to me today. I don’t use them. They are not even in my portfolio. But following things that meant something to me wound up being really lasting (even though some of them were not easy to define–like kids playing creatively isn’t really a category). So follow what you’re truly interested in and 20 years from now you’ll have something that you still like.
And be persistent! Don’t worry if you’re rejected. Rejection is a big part of succeeding as a freelancer. Get used to people not wanting what you have to offer be determined to keep doing it anyway.