1 art peoples photographer


98,000. THAT’S HOW MANY PEOPLE follow Martha Cooper on Instagram. A 2013 retrospective of her work titled “Street Signs” at the Palazzo Incontro in Rome drew lines stretching around the block. “In all my years in Rome I’ve never seen an exhibition more crowded,” wrote photo historian Jessica Stewart. A 2014 exhibition of Cooper’s work, “Evolution of a Revolution,” in Lublin, Poland has drawn such big crowds that the organizers are moving the show to Moscow this fall. The 71-year-old Cooper will attend the opening—one stop on a crowded late-2014 itinerary of festivals, exhibits and talks that will take her to the Azores, Istanbul, Switzerland, Argentina, Russia, Poland, Brazil and Art Basel Miami.

At such gatherings, “it’s like the Dalai Lama has been carried in when she arrives,” says Baltimore folklorist Elaine Eff, an old friend of Cooper’s. Fans jostle to have their photo taken with her and ask her to sign copies of her books, notes Eff, who calls Cooper “one of the great unsung photographers of our time.”

Unsung in her hometown of Baltimore perhaps but not amongst those who revere Cooper as the pre-eminent documentarian of what proponents call the biggest art movement in the history of the world—graffiti and street art. Her 1984 book with Henry Chalfant, “Subway Art,” is often called the “bible” of that movement and Cooper herself the matriarch of a family of tens of thousands of artists around the world inspired by it. “She’s an icon,” says Jay “J.SON” Edlin, a 55-year-old historian of graffiti and street art who first met Cooper in the early 1980s when he was a teenager spraypainting subway trains in New York City.

Cooper herself is modest about her fame. “When I’m in that world, I’m an icon. Take me one step out of that world and I’m nobody.”

Others beg to differ. “What’s amazing about Martha is that she has deep credentials, way past graffiti,” says Steve “ESPO” Powers, a friend and a fan, who points to Cooper’s current project, “Soweto/ Sowebo,” which pairs her shots of daily life in the Baltimore neighborhood with similar scenes of the South African township. Like her photographs of kids playing in the streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 1970s, these images show the joy and creativity expressed by poor and working-class people in neighborhoods often viewed as gritty and depressed.

“Marty’s work resonates with anyone who grew up in an urban environment because they capture the essence of city living, which to me means making the best use of a not always ideal situation,” says Baltimore-born artist Chris Stain, who recently painted an 80-foot-high mural in Brooklyn based on one of Cooper’s NYC photos. “Marty’s work has continuously highlighted a will to survive and be creative amidst the concrete jungle.”
Born in Baltimore in 1943, Cooper grew up in Mount Washington and attended Forest Park High School. She started taking photographs at a young age, encouraged by her father, Ben, who owned and operated Cooper’s Camera Mart in Hamilton with his brother Harry. She left Baltimore in 1959 to attend Grinnell College in Iowa, and after a stint in the Peace Corps in Thailand, studied ethnology at The University of Oxford. Though she had originally planned to become an anthropologist, she decided that she didn’t like working in museums and eventually found her way to journalism, becoming a staff photographer for the New York Post in 1977. It was there that she began taking the photographs that would ultimately make her reputation.

Edlin recalls first meeting Cooper when another young graffiti artist named SEEN invited her to photograph his crew spraypainting subway tunnels and trains in 1980. “We were a pretty wild bunch,” Edlin recalls. “It was dangerous but you got acclimated to it; you learned where the third rail was, how to walk on the tracks.” When the crack epidemic hit New York, just about the time that Cooper was beginning to photograph graffiti artists and their work, “you had to be armed,” Edlin says, “not to defend yourself against police but against other crews.”

Cooper was protected because attention-starved graffiti artists benefited from her photos of their work, Edlin says. “To have someone coming in taking beautiful pictures of your work with an expensive camera was an honor and also a validation of what you were doing.”

Cooper says that she decided to document the subway artists and their work because she thought that it was an ephemeral local phenomenon, an outgrowth of social conditions in the New York City of the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I was documenting that world in the spirit of historic preservation,” she says. “I thought, ‘this could only happen in New York City.’ I was wrong.”

When “Subway Art” came out in 1984, published in the U.K. because Cooper and Chalfant couldn’t interest an American publisher in the book, “there was an initial flurry of interest but then it died down,” Cooper says. Around the time the book was released, Mayor Ed Koch declared war on graffiti; train yards were protected by a double row of barbed wire-topped fences with attack dogs running between the rows, and subway cars were whitewashed and immediately removed from service if they were tagged. As Cooper had predicted, by the late 1980s subway art in New York was finished.

Throughout the 1990s she worked as a freelance photographer for publications like National Geographic and Smithsonian. “Little did I know that graffiti was spreading around the world,” Cooper says—or that it was slowly fusing with the South and Central American mural tradition to produce a new kind of public art, welcomed and sometimes even sponsored by municipal authorities.

In 2004 she was invited to sit on a panel with a group of younger folks who called themselves street artists, rather than graffiti writers, and who worked primarily with images rather than text. “I was 60 at the time,” she says, “and they knew who I was.” Those artists were traveling the world, painting and wheatpasting huge murals in city-sponsored festivals and exhibiting in museums. Some were selling works on canvas for eye-popping sums.
“I thought ‘if this is happening, I’m going to get in on it,’” Cooper says.

Since then, she has spent the greater part of every year journeying to far-flung locales, from Senegal to Stockholm, to photograph artists at work. “Her passion for expressive subcultures and voracious curiosity in spite of her age is truly inspiring,” says the Baltimore street artist Gaia, who curated Open Walls Baltimore in 2012 and 2014. “Marty has adapted with the times as many street artists have made the transition to the tradition of mural production and as many graffiti writers have become institutionally recognized.”

Cooper and Chalfant’s “Subway Art,” which has reportedly sold half a million copies, “undeniably changed the history of graffiti and the surface of the world’s cities,” Gaia says. But the work that Cooper has been quietly and methodically carrying out in Baltimore over the past decade, documenting daily life in Sowebo, may provide an even more enduring testament to her art. “The simple fact that she has recognized the wealth of culture in Southwest Baltimore despite its violent and troubled façade, is a testament to Martha’s courage and humanity,” he says.

Cooper herself believes that her Sowebo photographs, like her images of a now-vanished era in New York City, may need time to gel. “The work I do needs to sit for a while,” she says. “The ordinary becomes extraordinary after a few years.”

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