I (Heart) Martha: "The Martha Cooper Files"

This exhibition preview originally appeared (with some very cool photos) in The Prague Post, 8 May 2013.  Read at the Post.


In her first years documenting the New York graffiti scene in the late 1970s, Martha Cooper was something of an outsider.  Yet it’s easy to see why Cooper’s subjects took to the small white woman from Baltimore, who stumbled upon an underground art movement on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side between assignments for the New York Post.  At the opening-night party for “The Martha Cooper Files,” Cooper’s new exhibition at Trafačka’s Trafo Gallery, the now-70-year-old photographer, dressed in an “I (Heart) Graffiti” t-shirt, grinned and waved to her hundreds of fans and their smart phones—brandishing her own, to document the event on her Instagram feed.  Asked later about the event’s enormous turnout, Cooper called it “heartwarming—I mean, what more could anybody want, really?”

“The Martha Cooper Files,” which runs through May 17, puts Cooper’s good humor on display.  The exhibit features some of Cooper’s best-known photographs and spans her career from the late 1970s and the emergence of hip-hop culture until today, capturing the spirit of innovation that catalyzed the movement.  Cooper, who says she hasn’t found a single use of the term “hip hop” in print before 1982, said, “I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m photographing hip hop.’  I was following…particular kids and happened to photograph what turned into hip hop.”  Hung from silver clips on two floors of the gallery, the photographs reflect a swift evolution from an unnamed culture to a New-York trend to an international phenomenon.  Though Cooper holds a degree in anthropology, the photographs are a testament not to an ethnographer accessing a culture outside her own, but rather to a community embracing its enthusiastic documentarian.

Cooper’s career owes much to a chain of serendipitous encounters.  While shooting a series on children at play on New York’s Lower East Side, Cooper met a 14-year-old boy, the “writer” HE3—a writer being an artist who “writes” his (or, less frequently, her) name in public spaces—who showed her his sketchbook and asked her why she didn’t photograph graffiti.   HE3 introduced Cooper to Dondi, whom the photographer called a “king” of the scene, and Cooper later accompanied him to paint a subway car—herself providing some of the paint.

Following her meeting with Dondi, Cooper was befriended by other writers in the community and accompanied them to train yards to document their processes. “I am more interested in the process of painting than I am in the finished [product],” Cooper explained.  In a low voice, she confessed: “I kind of had to learn to like the art.”  Yet Cooper speaks of the writers and their “youth culture” with unmistakable respect. “They were using modern materials, and they rejected existing culture,” Cooper explained.  “And it really didn’t have to do with whether they were rich or poor or white or black or Hispanic—it was always universal.  It had to do with skills.”

While Cooper documented the writers at work, Henry Chalfant was photographing the art itself, working quickly to capture photos of subway cars that, when he pieced the negatives together, would create composite images of their painted broadsides.  The writers introduced Chalfant and Cooper, and the two collaborated on Subway Art, the 1984 book now considered the Bible of the graffiti art movement. 

“I never got caught,” Cooper professed in a whisper, as if the New York Police Department might roam the halls of Trafačka.  But the illegality of the work appealed to the photographer, who kept her New York Post press pass at hand in case she and the writers ran into trouble.  “I would tell [the writers], ‘You run away, and I’ll just try to argue my way out of this,’” she explained.

In the nearly thirty years since the publication of Subway Art, Cooper has remained loyal to the subjects of graffiti and hip hop culture, but her palette has changed.  During a trip to South Africa, Cooper was struck by the similarities Johannesburg’s South Western Townships (Soweto) shared with Sowebo, the southwestern district of her native Baltimore, and she began to photograph street life in the region.  She now takes a bus from Manhattan to Baltimore nearly every other weekend as she develops the project.  Cooper also has a continued interest in documenting the work of female artists who manage to break into the boys’ club of hip hop.

Cooper nestled her visit to Prague in between an opening at a gallery in Milan and an auction at Sotheby’s at home in New York, at which her photographs of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early tags hung on the wall.  In Prague, she smiled and shook hands with the hundreds of Trafačka visitors seeking an autograph, each of which she adorned with a cartoon drawing of an SLR camera.  She posed for photographs with fans, and with fans’ children.  Not only has Cooper learned to like the art—she herself has become adored.  

For her seventieth birthday this March, and in repayment for her tireless documentation of their art, New York writers painted a mural of Cooper’s nickname, Marty: “Thanks to you our work survives!” the wall read.  Touched, Cooper captured the mural on camera before the work, like all the others she documents, disappeared.