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Martha Cooper Is Still Street

Words:

Edd Norval
March 2, 2018

Martha Cooper is one of the most important figures in the New York graffiti scene - even though she isn't actually a graffiti artist. Now in her 70s, she is still active within the community and we can thank her for introducing the world to graffiti.

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Martha Cooper's love for photography started very young. Her father owned a camera store, so from the tender age of 3 she would join him on photography trips, planting the seed for her passion of capturing moments as opposed to 'scenes'. Seventy years on she has made it clear that her approach hasn't changed much. Not one for dramatic lighting, she captures moments as they unfold - a reflection of the kinetic and spontaneous energy that graffiti and the surrounding culture embodies.


The Golden Years of graffiti, especially subway painting, was in New York - from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. She was there, elegantly capturing dramatic incidents as and when they unfolded before her eyes with her faithful camera and not much else. Young men and woman would run across train roofs, breakdance in the street and clandestinely paint in places to maximise notoriety whilst evading capture - she didn't need to set the scene when all this was going on.

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Her work has appeared in many places worldwide including the Museum of the City of New York, Pera Museum (Istanbul), Urbannation, (Berlin), Pallazo Incontro (Rome) and Fullersta Gard (Stockholm). The artform of graffiti at one time only had value to those within the scene and was a scourge to those outside of it had now, thanks to Cooper's photographs, been viewed in prestigious institutions around the world - marking the prominence and importance of graffiti. She has also produced many books including 'Subway Art', a book that is seen by many in the scene as a sort of 'bible'.


Aside from documenting the scene as a whole, she was very close to artist Dondi, one of the movement's most influential figures to this day. The early days of graffiti in New York was defined by a pioneering spirit where seemingly new advancements and experiments were being carried out daily - constantly pushing its boundaries to new levels. Her access to the scene and to one of its most famous writers meant that she faithfully captured the intensity of the acts, as they happened. She was a documenter of an authentic movement that unbeknownst at the time would change the world.


Graffiti writers can be aggressive - their discipline defined by the territorial nature of the artform. Where the documentary work of Cooper stood out was that it softened the edges without blurring the picture. The portraits of the people involved were often intimate, capturing the writers in their happiest states, doing what they wanted in the place they seemed to belong. The same could be said about Martha Stewart - she was doing what she loved, in the place that she had come to belong - along the way making as much of an impact on the worldwide graffiti scene as any of the writers she photographed.

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