Snapshots and Street Art: Photographer Martha Cooper Talks Graffiti at ICP in LES

Photographer Martha Cooper has documented some of New York City’s most critical cultural movements over the past half-century.

Cooper chronicled the lives of threadbare children playing among the ruins of a miserable Bronx in the 1970s before following the graffiti artists who made the metropolis’ subways their own moving canvases. She also made a name for herself helping capture the birth of the breakdancing scene, all with her unique eye and through her lens.

However, it was not an easy trip. Cooper entered a field dominated by her male counterparts, but she persisted, becoming one of the New York Post’s first female photographers.

Now, about to turn 80, she continues to look back on her storied career while traveling the world in search of her next project.

On July 21, crowds of New Yorkers crammed into seats at the International Center of Photography – a prestigious photo gallery that celebrates the power of the image and currently features the works of William Klein – on Essex Street to watch a documentary based on Cooper’s life: “Martha, a story in pictures.”

The film premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, just before the surge of COVID-19 in New York. The pandemic took its toll on the film, preventing it from being released on a wider scale.

Cooper holds a copy of the upcoming Spray Nation book. Photo of Dean Moses
New Yorkers throng the ICP to watch the screening. Photo by Dean Moses

“I felt very sad for the filmmaker, Selina, that the film missed out on many film festivals where it would have screened, which is kind of a shame. She worked very hard on it,” Cooper told amNewYork Metro before the projection.

Despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cooper hasn’t slowed down. She spent time digging deep into her vast catalog of images to compile a new book of unpublished work called Spray Nation, and discovered photographs she had overlooked.

“I had no idea. I would never have gone back there, as far as I was concerned it was over. So that was fun, for example the European edition has this one on the cover”, Cooper said pointing to the back of the book “Which I also loved, but I actually prefer those two women on the train,” she continued as she unraveled a large poster.

It’s obvious that no matter how much time passes, the photographer remains just as committed and passionate about her work as she was 30 years ago. In Cooper’s mind, his career was not a story of perfect stills. She achieved her lifelong dream of working for National Geographic, but it wasn’t quite what she hoped for.

“I have the cover, but listen, it’s an article about pollen. So my dream was to work for National Geographic and my idea was to travel all over the world. Let’s take these beautiful photos and what should I do? I get a pollen story. In fact, I’m living what I thought I wanted to do, but not for National Geographic. It turned out that I was really not that kind of photographer. I was not interested in this kind of story and so I travel all over the world. I take pictures of graffiti and street art. I got what I wanted, but not the way I thought it would happen. I’m telling you this because I think it’s a lesson for photographers to focus on the things they’re good at and really love,” Cooper said.

With pandemic restrictions currently being relaxed, Cooper captures moments in New York and around the world. More recently, she photographed the Pride Parade in front of the StoneWall Inn and street art in Congo Africa, so the question remains: what will her next big project be?

Cooper shows a large poster of his work. Photo by Dean Moses
Cover of Cooper on National Geographic. Photo of Dean Moses

“I always keep my eyes open. I don’t really know what the next thing will be. But hopefully something will catch my attention and I’ll go after it. Now I spend more time organizing my files than taking more photos. I would say I just try to get everything in a way that could actually be left behind and that would be, you know, part of the story. i think this [Graffiti] is a huge art movement, it became this huge art movement. I don’t think it’s as well understood as it could be. There are amazing graffiti artists and you won’t find any graffiti at MOMA. For example, MOMA is a contemporary art museum. Why haven’t contemporary art museums embraced some of this amazing art? I think it’s going to happen, and so I want my history section to be organized in a way that people can research,” Cooper said.

ICP viewers applauded the screening and even stayed to see the William Klein exhibit which runs until September 12. Spray Nation is currently available as a box set, which includes postcards and a poster. The standalone hardcover book will be released on September 6.

National Geographic. Photo by Dean Moses
Cooper chats with ICP host Amy Touchette. Pphoto of Dean Moses

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