Interview: Ksenia Petrova
Martha Cooper is 73 years old, she is known all over the world as a photographer, depicting the birth of graffiti culture in New York in the late 1970s, and co-author of Subway Art, which inspired many young people around the world to pursue street art. For more than forty years, Cooper has been photographing graffiti writers and their work: at the beginning of her career, she spent all her free time in poor neighborhoods where teenage street artists lived, accompanied them on night outings to abandoned buildings and unguarded depots, photographed trains they had painted and walls.
Cooper's biography is enough for several exciting films: she volunteered for the Peace Corps and taught children English in Thailand, rode a motorcycle from there to Oxford, where she received a degree in anthropology, lived in Japan, then returned to America and became the first woman - a photojournalist for the New York Post … Cooper now continues to shoot street art around the world and in his native Baltimore for his own perpetual art project. The photographer arrived in Russia for the Artmossphere Street Art Biennale, which takes place in the Manege from August 30 to September 9. We met Martha on the opening day of the exhibition and talked about the 1980s graffiti scene, female writers, inspirational art projects, vandalism, and Pokémon.
In your youth, you traveled a lot, lived in different countries, and what was your childhood like? How did you end up in New York?
I grew up in Baltimore, a major city in Maryland, and my childhood was pretty ordinary: my dad owned a photography store, and my mom taught English at school and did journalism. In 1975, I married an anthropologist, moved with him to Japan, where he collected material for his doctoral dissertation, and I filmed something for National Geographic. Then we returned to the United States and lived in Rhode Island. But I really wanted to move to New York, since there were all the editorial offices and publishing houses where I could work as a photographer - of course, there was no Internet then and it was important to live in the city where you work.
So at first I rented an apartment on the Upper West Side on an ad for three days a week and wandered between the West Side and Rhode Island for five years until my (ex) husband found a teaching job in New York. Then I rented a separate apartment, became a staff photographer for the New York Post and constantly traveled to the editorial office, which was located in the Lower East Side. It was still a neighborhood, but I often walked there when I needed to click through the footage in order to take it to the editorial office. There I started taking pictures of children playing in the street and met with the writer HE3, who asked me to photograph his work.
And you quit your job in the editorial office to shoot graffiti?
Yes, I was so into graffiti photography that I left the New York Post and spent many hours waiting for a train with a new work of a famous author to pass by, or accompanying writers on their night outings.
What interested you the most in this culture? As an anthropologist and as a photographer?
The graffiti authors really risked their lives to create their works: they could be arrested for both timetables of trains and for stealing paint. You see, their art was so important to them that they were really ready for anything. And it was such a secret world of adolescents that adults did not understand - that interested me very much. I studied art history in college, so graffiti attracted me as a researcher as well.
It seems to me that graffiti is an ideal subject specifically for photography: I think that I didn’t take pictures of everything related to music - rappers, DJs, concerts - because the most important thing in their work cannot be conveyed through photographs.And for graffiti artists, photography is the only way to perpetuate their work: today you painted an inscription on a train or wall, and tomorrow others will paint it over. New York graffiti became so popular not because they were somehow highly artistic, but because each writer had his own recognizable style, some kind of history - this can only be seen in photographs.
In the 1980s, street art was a "men's club" - female graffiti artists were rare. What can you say about the artists who worked at that time?
I personally knew only two: Lady Pink and Lizzy. Since then, I've heard about many others - of course, there were other great artists that I didn't know about, and I really regret that. When I was shooting pictures for the book "We B * Girlz" about girls who do break dance, I realized that in the 80s I missed out on a whole layer of hip-hop culture about women. Perhaps I should have tried harder to find female graffiti artists and photograph their work, because the girls in this environment really deserved special attention.
In one of your interviews, you said that Lady Pink managed to enter the graffiti artist environment because she had a "cool personality."
Yes, she was always strong and confident in herself, did not give herself offense, she could quarrel with the guys if she didn’t like something. She didn't let men tell her what to do. But she was also a good artist: after all, in the world of graffiti, skill was first of all appreciated, and if you could prove that you were capable of something, you were accepted into the get-together. You didn't have to be black, white, or male - you just had to be a good writer.
Do you also have a "tough character"?
Yes, that's for sure! It was not at all difficult for me to be friends with the writers: they were interested in having their works photographed, and they knew that I would not hand them over to the cops. At the New York Post, I was the first female staff photographer, there were 15 guys and me. Not that I was somehow taken lightly, but it was just that men were doing journalism at that time. And in the graffiti scene today, of course, there are much more women than then, but most of the writers are guys anyway.
Today, street art is sold in galleries, and graffiti artists receive orders for wall painting from large companies. What do you think about it?
What interested me most about graffiti was the taboo, the fact that it was a closed underground culture, such a secret basement under the world of pop culture. There is nothing wrong with artists getting paid for their work, but commercialized street art is no longer that interesting to me. For example, I am curious to see this exhibition, to find out what is happening in the world, but I am not interested in filming here.
How do you think graffiti will develop further?
I am often asked about this, and I always honestly say that I do not know. I follow the process and document it, but I don't lead it. I think there will be many experiments with virtual and augmented reality, digital technologies, but I cannot say that now there is some powerful trend that will certainly develop into something independent in the future.
I myself would like to see more art projects touching on acute social topics, so that art somehow improves people's lives. This year I worked with Mundano, an artist from Brazil, on the project "Viva os catadores": he painted the carts of "catadores" - people who collect garbage and recyclables, making a living and doing something very important for society, but not very respected work I love this project because it is not only beautiful, but also really changes the world: the works of Mundano make the catadors "visible" and make people think about how much waste they generate and how it affects the planet.
Mundano and I were in Sao Paulo and filmed the catadors who live in the slums.At first it was scary to wade into these areas and take pictures of the people I first met, but they all knew Mundano, he managed to create such a warm connection with the community and earn their respect. It was great, I could never have taken these photos alone. Now we are thinking of doing a similar project in New York - there are also a lot of people there who are engaged in sorting and recycling garbage, people constantly see them on the street, but never speak to them.
In Russia, most people do not consider graffiti to be art, especially when it comes to text graffiti and tags. What needs to be done to stop seeing street art as vandalism?
It is important to understand that not all graffiti are works of art. I often see some kind of inscription and think: "This is not at all appropriate here, you shouldn't have ruined this beautiful marble slab." The streets are full of blatantly bad art, but museums also have plenty of it. Graffiti is definitely better than outdoor advertisements, which also litter the city. You look at an inscription drawn by someone and think that before you there was someone alive, he put his soul into it, left his mark. Banner ads don't have that aura, they're just trying to get you to buy something.
I think that sympathy for street art comes along with "acquired taste" - for this you need to see many works of art, not only street art, but also classical. I don't like many of the paintings in museums, but unlike graffiti, they don't invade my personal space - so I perfectly understand people who oppose graffiti. For example, I would not want someone to paint the wall of my house without asking.
What are the writers you filmed in the early 80s doing now?
Their fate has developed very differently: someone owns a gallery or works in the field of art, and someone has died or is in prison. Lady Pink, for example, still paints walls and teaches children painting. Crash has opened its own gallery, very nice and does a lot of custom work for commercial companies.
You bought a home in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Baltimore to explore the community and take pictures of the neighborhood. What came of it?
I actually bought a house in southwest Baltimore, in an area they call Sowebo, and I live there a couple of months a year. My photo project with local residents is endless - I gradually get to know them, walk around the block, all the neighbors already know me as "The Picture Lady". Many willingly pose for me, because they know that I always print pictures and give them as a keepsake, some bring me their parents and friends so that I can take pictures of them too. The area here is really not the most peaceful. I made an album in which photographs of my area in Baltimore are compared with photographs taken in South Africa at a place with a similar name - Soweto. This is the outskirts of Johannesburg, where Africans were forced to settle during apartheid, now poor people live there and there is a residence for artists. It's amazing how these two places and the people in them are similar.
Finally, tell us a little about your collection of photographs with women photographers?
Haha, it's great that you remembered this. For many years I have been collecting old photographs, posters and postcards of women with cameras - all of this is posted on the Kodak Girls website, and the originals are kept in my apartment in New York and take up a lot of space. These are mostly images from famous Kodak ad campaigns. When compact cameras went on sale, their advertisements were aimed at women, and so the “Kodak Girl” appeared - an independent lady who traveled a lot and took her camera with her. When I first saw her image as a child at some antiques fair, I immediately realized that I was the Kodak girl.
There are a couple of hours left before the opening of the Biennale, what will you do at this time?
I'm going to catch Pokemon, there are so many of them! For a couple of months now I can not tear myself away from this game.
Photos: Martha Cooper / Everybody Stree / All Day Every Day, Carmachael Gallery, Wikipedia