📷: ART IS THE WORD by ALIVE 5 (1981) © Martha Cooper
For some, the prestige of working at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History might be a lifelong goal, but Martha Cooper felt cooped up working behind a desk cataloging artifacts day in, day out. She yearned for freedom, action, and adventure — the kind she encountered photographing the world while riding a motorcycle from Bangkok to London in 1965.
Cooper’s lifelong love of photography began at age three when her father gave her a camera. “I brought it to nursery school and my teacher tried to take it away from me,” she remembers of her first brush with authority. But Cooper would not be curtailed. Growing up during the golden age of photo magazines, Cooper dreamed of becoming a feature photographer, and went one to become one of the two first women photo interns at National Geographic in 1968.
Knowing she had to get back in the field, Cooper quit her job at the Peabody and began working at the Narragansett Times. But the placid shores of Rhode Island were no match for the bright lights of New York. In 1975 Cooper decamped to Manhattan to pursue her ambition of becoming a newspaper photographer. When she arrived, the city was teetering along the brink of bankruptcy. Eleven billion dollars in debt and no longer able to maintain basic municipal services, New York was crumbling, literally and figuratively. White flight kicked into high gear as middle class squares abandoned the city en masse; but from the void a new generation emerged. Fueled by a D.I.Y. ethos, they transformed the streets into their stage and subways into their canvas, innovating, improvising, and re-imagining a new world driven by art for art’s sake.
Graffiti spread like flowers on a vine, taking over every inch of public space but Cooper, like many adults, had no idea what any of it meant. Blessed with an affinity for vernacular arts, Cooper had embarked on a photo series, Street Play, documenting kids transforming the barren landscape of the Lower East Side into a playground of imagination. The project took root after Cooper began working as the first woman staff photographer at the New York Post in 1977. Strapped with two cameras and a two-way radio connected to the city desk, Cooper zipped around the city on assignment in a beat-up Honda Civic. “I would shoot two or three a day, and they could be anything. They could be crime, stakeouts, all kinds or portraits of celebrities,” she recalls.
With a press pass and press license plates, Cooper had total freedom but the news beat wasn’t her scene. Too much jostling for position amid competitors, Cooper longed for the creativity of long-form reportage. On her way back to the Post’s South Street headquarters, she drove through the Lower East Side and used up the remainder of her film photographing the kids she encountered for Street Play, documenting kids creatively remaking their landscape. After photographing a boy who went by HE3 on the roof with pigeons, he showed her a piece in his notebook, explaining he was practicing to put it on a wall. In that moment, Cooper realized graffiti was not meaningless scrawl; it was an art form invented, developed, and mastered by kids and teens to announce themselves to the world.
“Why don’t you take pictures of graffiti?” HE3 asked — and the die was cast. Offering to introduce Cooper to a king, HE3 hopped in her car and directed her to drive out to East New York to meet none other than Dondi White. They arrived and knocked on the door. “When I introduced myself, DONDI said, ‘Wow! You’re Martha Cooper!'” she remembers. As fate would have it, one of Cooper’s pictures with a DONDI piece in the background ran as the lead shot in a full page Street Play story in the Post. DONDI pasted the clip into the front of his black book and recognized Cooper’s name from the photo credit line.
From this chance encounter, a connection was forged. A few months later, Cooper returned some months later for a professional photo shoot of a black book session in DONDI’s bedroom. MR. JAY, SLAVE, LOVIN 2, and GLI 67 were hanging out, listening to music, drinking 40s, looking at photos, and doing outlines. The casual scene belies complexity of the shoot; Cooper was using a manual camera to shoot Kodachrome with 64 ISO without a flash so she brought lights, umbrellas, and strobes to capture the writers in their element. While Cooper usually shot with natural light, she brought this same professionalism to all her work, which made extraordinarily difficult photographs look fun and effortless.
DONDI told Cooper about masterpieces: the top to bottom whole cars running 100 feet in length, which came to define the golden age of subway art. Cooper, who had never really looked at the outside of the trains, headed up to 180th Street in the Bronx to see for herself. The first day she photographed a LEE train waiting in the station; the second day, a BLADE full car. She describes it as “beginner’s luck,” but as anyone who has ever used a camera knows, it’s not a matter of simply being in the right place at the right time — you have to be the right person to get the shot.
Blessed with the knowledge that a great photograph is not what you see, it’s how you see it, Cooper understood the best way to preserve these monumental albeit ephemeral works was to capture them in their element: 41 tons of pure steel barreling down the tracks, with the juice of 600 volts shooting through the third rail. With the trains running above ground across the Bronx, Cooper traveled far and wide looking for the perfect backdrop. Cooper started working evening hours at the Post so she could photograph the trains during the morning and afternoon when the light was best. Once captured on film she moved on to the next locale, doing so day in and day out until she realized her job at the Post was a hindrance. “I had to go to work, so I said ‘Fuck it, I just want to do this,'” Cooper remembers — and so she quit.
In 1980, Cooper devoted herself to photographing New York City graffiti, shooting the trains in motion, the writers in the yards, the emerging art scene, and the culture as it began to seep into the mainstream. Photographing the writers working under the cover of night produced some of Cooper’s most epic works. As one of the only adults allowed into the clandestine scene, Cooper did her best to be invisible. “To me the story wasn’t complete until I could see how graffiti was painted. My photos are never just about the finished piece, now or then. I always want to know how art is created,” she says. “It was a mission and they were professionals. They know how to get in, do their thing, and get out.”
Cooper began showing the work to newspapers and magazines, but most blanched at the idea of graffiti, their middle class sensibilities perturbed by the notion that anything illegal could be a work of art. Despite the pushback, Cooper remained undeterred and teamed up with Henry Chalfant to create Subway Art in 1984. Now known as the Bible, the slim paperback was a slow burn. It received virtually no attention from the mainstream media, which was firmly entrenched in the now discredited “broken windows theory,” that suggested misdemeanors acts like graffiti formed a gateway to violent crime.
But with the increasing popularity of graffiti through the emergence of commercial hip hop, city officials, preferring surface to substance, started cracking down on subway art. By the end of the 1980s, the trains had become a thing of the past, inadvertently transforming Cooper and Chalfant’s book into an historic artifact. Subway Art went global, becoming a cult classic and going on to sell some quarter of a million copies. Cooper, who had stopped shooting graffiti when the book came out, had no idea of the book’ impact on the culture until the 2004 release of her book, Hip Hop Files: 1979–1984, which brought the writers back together after 20 years. Seeing the impact of the book, Cooper remembers sitting on a panel during a book fair in New York and making a conscious decision to jump back in.
Now on the cusp of her 80th birthday, Cooper is still going strong, traveling the globe documenting the contemporary graffiti and street art scenes. But what of the work that started it all: the hundreds of thousands of never-before seen works made during those formative years? It’s a question filmmaker, curator, and editor Roger Gastman asked and answered with the new book, Spray Nation: 1980s NYC Graffiti Photographs. Bringing together never-before-seen photos of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Patti Astor, Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee, DJ Kay Slay aka DEZ, DONDI, CRASH, SKEME, and Cey Adams, to name just a few, Spray Nation is groundbreaking portrait of New York’s underground that forever changed the course of contemporary art.
“Everyone takes pictures now. Back then, Martha Cooper was the only one,” says Cey Adams, artist and founding Creative Director of Def Jam. “She captured the essence of the movement and the rawness of it all. She captured an innocent time in the history of the culture, purely out of the same love that we had for what we were doing. That is the thing about Martha’s photography that makes her special: she put her heart and soul into what she was doing. Take away Martha’s images and a large part of the movement ceases to exist. Who was capturing a portrait like that? That’s a frozen moment in time. She was documenting something when no one else cared.”