Snapshots and Street Art: Photographer Martha Cooper talks graffiti at ICP in the LES

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

Cooper chronicles the lives of scrappy children playing among the ruins of the poor Bronx in the 1970s, before tracking down graffiti artists who caused the metropolis’s subways to install their own moving canvases. She also made her name by helping to capture the birth of the breakdance scene, all with her unique perspective and through her lens.

However, it was not an easy journey. Cooper entered a field dominated by her male counterparts, but she persevered nonetheless, becoming one of the first female photographers at the New York Post.

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

On July 21, crowds of New Yorkers gathered at the International Center of Photography—a prestigious photo gallery that celebrates the power of the image and is currently showing the works of William Klein—on Essex Street to watch a documentary based on Cooper’s life: ” Martha, a picture story.’

The film premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, just before the wave of COVID-19 in New York. The pandemic affected the film, preventing it from being released on a larger scale.

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

“I was very sad for the director, Selina, that the film missed a lot of film festivals where it was going to be shown, which is pretty bad. She worked very hard on it,” Cooper told amNewYork Metro ahead of the screening.

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 She spent some time digging deep into her vast catalog of images to compile a new book of previously unpublished works called Spray Nation, and in the process discovered photographs she had forgotten she had.

“I have no idea. I would never go back, as far as I was concerned, that was like the end. So it was fun, for example, the European edition has that on the cover,” Cooper said, pointing to the back of the book. “Which I also liked, but actually I like those two women on the train better,” she continued, unfurling a large poster.

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

“I got the cover, but look, it’s an article about pollen. So my dream was to work for National Geographic and my idea was that I would travel all over the world. Let’s take these wonderful pictures and what shall I do? I’m getting a pollen story. I’m actually living what I thought I wanted to do, but not for National Geographic. Turns out I’m really not that kind of photographer. I was not interested in this kind of stories and that’s why I travel all over the world. I take photos 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 concentrate on the things they’re good at and really enjoy,” Cooper said.

With pandemic restrictions currently eased, Cooper captures moments both in New York and around the world. Most recently, she photographed the pride parade outside the StoneWall Inn and street art in the Congo in Africa, so the question remains: what will her next big project be?

Cooper displays a large poster of her work. Photo by Dean Moses
Cooper’s cover of National Geographic. Photo by Dean Moses

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

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

National Geographic. Photo by Dean Moses
Cooper talks with ICP host Amy Touchet. Photo by Dean Moses

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