Under the cover of night, Martha Cooper crept into train yards to document some of New York’s most legendary graffiti writers as they brandished spray cans, unfurling masterpieces on the outside of subway trains in 1981 and ‘82. The petite photographer slipped through a hole cut into the chain link fence, agilely maneuvering her way between the massive steel cars, quick to duck under one if a train worker came by, taking tremendous care not to touch the third rail, through which 600 volts of live electricity steadily coursed.
Cooper carefully took aim as writers like Dondi, Dez, Daze Skeme, Min, Shy and Lady Pink worked feverishly through the night, painting their names on the exterior of a single subway car, a “canvas” that was 50 feet long by 12 feet high. “It was so dark they couldn’t even see what color the paints were,” Cooper says. “They were lighting matches — where the whole can could explode — to see the color of the paint.”
To call graffiti “death defying” would not be an overstatement, for many writers have died or been badly injured in their quest to “get up.” Often teenagers, writers were willing to risk it all for what they loved. Though Cooper was nearing 40, she was no less daring. She just quit her job as the first woman staff photographer at the New York Post in 1980 so that she could have more time to document graffiti.
“I was ambitious and the Post wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer,” says Cooper, who was also the first woman photographer to intern for the fabled photo magazine in 1968. Cooper envisioned her portrait of New York’s artistic underground would catapult her to the top of the documentary photography scene but things didn’t work out quite like she planned.
Sewing the Seeds
The new exhibition Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures traces six decades of Cooper’s fabled career, which first began in earnest when she quit her job cataloguing artifacts at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History to become a photojournalist. Cooper arrived in New York in 1975, just as the city was about to collapse, reveling in the lawless atmosphere that produced some of the most influential art movements of the late twentieth century.
In 1977, Cooper began working for the Post, photographing everything from crime to celebrities. But what she loved most were the photo features, quintessential slices of life that could only happen in New York, like an idyllic scene of sunbathers catching a few rays on what remained of a pier crumbling into the Hudson River, while cars cruised along the West Side Highway.
Selections from this series, later published as New York State of Mind (powerHouse Books) are included in the show along with photographs from Street Play (From Here to Fame), a series of charming vignettes of kids in the streets of the Lower East Side, which Cooper made when she drove down to the Post’s South Street office.
One day in 1979, a youngster named Edwin, who Cooper had photographed with his pigeons on a tenement roof, showed her a notebook where he wrote the graffiti tag “HE3.” He pointed to a wall where the sketch reappeared in its final form, explaining he was the one who painted the graffiti. “That was like a light bulb turning on,” Cooper says.
Getting Down With the King
After Edwin offered to introduce Cooper to a “King,” they drove out to East New York to meet Dondi White (1961-1988), one of the most influential graffiti writers of all time. “When I introduced myself, Dondi knew who I was because he had clipped the picture I took of the kid on a swing, which ran in the Post, and pasted it in the front of his black book because it had his piece on the wall.”
Later that year, Cooper returned to East New York to photograph Dondi and friends in his bedroom, listening to music, drinking Colt 45, paging through photo albums filled with graffiti flicks, and drawing in their black books. “Dondi kept talking about these big pieces I had never seen — top to bottom whole cars — and I had no idea what he was talking about,” Cooper says. She drove up to 180th Street in the Bronx to go trainspotting and landed upon brand new works be Lee and Blade. “A couple of my best pictures came the first few days and that got me going. It’s like going out fishing the first time and you catch a whale!”
The Book That Changed the World
Cooper quickly realized she didn’t have enough hours in the day to hunt big game and work for a paycheck, so she quit the Post in order to have the freedom she needed to document the scene. Cooper quickly met virtually every major graffiti writer of the time, often photographing them while painting despite the fact her pictures could be evidence of a crime. “I think the idea that they were going to get fame out of it overruled [their concerns],” Cooper says.
The mainstream media, however, treated graffiti like a scourge and by and large rejected Cooper’s work. Fate quickly intervened when Cooper was introduced to Henry Chalfant, another photographer documenting graffiti in New York. Together they published Subway Art (Henry Holt, 1984), a slim paperback that failed to achieve critical or commercial success upon release. But over the years, the book became a cult phenomenon, selling over a quarter of a million copies and spreading graffiti around the globe.
But Cooper had no idea her photographs were revered. It wasn’t until 2004, with the publication of Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979-1984 (From Here to Fame) that she would learn the true impact of her work. Over the past two decades, Cooper has collaborated with graffiti writers and street artists, traveling around the globe to document work, both legal and illegal. The documentary film, Martha: A Picture Story, opens with Cooper running through a train station in Germany with the notorious 1UP Crew, going just as hard as she did 40 years ago.
This can be attributed to the consummate professionalism and mutual respect Cooper and the writers share for one another. “I never hung out with graffiti writers outside of when I was photographing them. I wasn’t the participant observer. I didn’t throw myself in there and help carry the paint. I tried to be the fly on the wall — that was my approach. All I was trying to do was get a good picture.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures
Curated by Steven P. Harrington and Jaime Rojo/BrooklynStreetArt.com
Through August 1, 2021
Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art
Bülowstraße 7, 10783, D-10559 Berlin, Germany