Martha Cooper’s Street Art Chronicles

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I sat down to profile Martha Cooper and found myself stumped. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out an angle. It’s not like I was hurting for material. This past January, Cooper bolstered her reputation as graffiti’s most tireless documenter with Going Postal, a photo anthology of postal sticker street art. She marked the release a month later with a wildly successful show at Brooklyn’s Ad Hoc Art Gallery that showcased artists from the book. And she’d thoughtfully answered a slew of my big, abstract questions on everything from independent publishing to the state of international street art. In other words, there’s plenty to say about Cooper. But her work kept resisting my attempts to shape it into a tidy hook.

Cooper might be happy to hear it. She’s spent more than 30 years doggedly photographing the many permutations of graffiti and graffiti culture, including niches–like tagging–that others won’t touch. Before this, she worked as a photojournalist, and her slow, methodical approach is, in part, her own reaction against the pressure of the news hook. “Photojournalism,” she explains, “often means shooting elbow to elbow with a pack of other photographers and news crews. I dislike fighting for position with other photographers. I prefer to shoot subjects over time and not worry if there’s a ‘news’ angle.” So she quit to pursue solo projects at her own pace. Lucky for us, because the decision has birthed collections like her seminal record of early New York graffiti, Subway Art, along with more recent books like Tag Townand Going Postal.

Cooper’s commitment to long-term observation lends her photos a depth of insight that’s rare in treatments of graffiti. You can hear it in the way she likens tagging to “classic calligraphy” and lauds sticker artists’ ability to create styles that are both flexible and recognizable: She respects her subjects as more than passing fads. She accordingly approaches her work in the spirit of preservation “so that they can be seen and appreciated by future generations.” Some of her projects have fulfilled this mission quite successfully. Subway Art, for instance, has become a bible for graffiti fans, and an expanded 25th anniversary edition is slated for release this April.

To describe Cooper’s work solely in terms of longevity, though, would be unfair, because her photos are also gorgeous. Going Postal is no exception. It’s marked by bold, saturated colors, and animated by a palpable enthusiasm for its subjects.Cooper clearly sees beauty in the work she shoots, and her photos quickly convince you to adopt this excitement. You find yourself admiring the deft curve of a signature, marveling at an ingenuous color combination, and, once you’re back out on the street, scanning mailboxes and signposts and trashcans for local sticker art iterations. This collection, like her others, encourages its audience to consider the artistry and craftsmanship in work that’s more often ignored.     

Cooper hopes that the artists gain something from this engagement. “I would like there to be something in the process for them,” she says. This desire guides the stylistic choices she makes in her photography. In order “to depict the art as the artist wanted it,” she generally avoids cropping and shoots head on, “without distortion from lenses or angles.” In compiling Going Postal, she negotiated the layouts to ensure that each sticker was shown in its entirety and, when possible, asked the artists for help in image selection. And because many of the artists “are relatively unknown,” Cooper combined Going Postal‘s release party with the show at Ad Hoc, so people could “celebrate them as well as celebrate the publication of the book.”

From an outside perspective, it would appear as though Cooper has developed a commendable modus operandi, following the things that inspire her, structuring projects to allow for detailed investigation, and developing collaborative relationships with the people she meets along the way. But she thinks the model could be improved upon. In her current project, an on-going documentation of a Baltimore neighborhood, she’s immersing herself even more deeply than in past projects. She bought a row house there three years ago, and has since visited every couple of weeks to walk around the neighborhood and take photos. She’s been pleased with the results thus far. “Already,” she notes, “many things have changed,” and she’s been there to record the shifts. And her neighbors now expect–and respect–the photographer in their midst: “People recognize me on the street and are friendly and even request photos.”

In a manner befitting a photographer who’s spent her career eschewing catchy angles in favor of slower ethnographic methods, Cooper maintains that there’s “no grand plan about the final result” for the Baltimore project. That’s a good way, incidentally, to talk about her body of work more generally. Her photos possess an abiding faith in their subjects’ ability to speak for themselves. Cooper moves with the conviction that what they have to say is important, and if she has an agenda, it’s to open up a better platform for them to do so. This commitment to producing open-ended images might not lend itself to an orderly news story, but it makes for some pretty powerful work.

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