Snapshots and Street Art: Photographer Martha Cooper talks graffiti at the ICP in LES – AMNY | Candle Made Easy

Photographer Martha Cooper has documented some of the most important cultural movements in New York City over the past half century.

Cooper chronicled the lives of worn-out children playing in the ruins of a poverty-stricken Bronx in the 1970s, before following graffiti artists who turned the metropolis’ subway into their own moving canvases. She also made a name for herself by helping capture the birth of the breakdance scene, all with her unique eye and through her lens.

However, it was not an easy journey. Entering a field dominated by her male peers, Cooper persevered and became one of the first female photographers at the New York Post.

Now on the cusp of 80, they both continue to look back on their eventful careers while still traveling the world in search of their next project.

On July 21st, crowds of New Yorkers flocked to the International Center of Photography – a prestigious photo gallery celebrating the power of the image and currently showing the work of William Klein – on Essex Street to watch a documentary about Cooper’s life: ” Martha, a picture story.”

The film premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, just before the outbreak of COVID-19 in New York. The pandemic took its toll on the film and prevented it from being released more widely.

Cooper holds up a copy of the forthcoming book Spray Nation. Photo by Dean Moses
New Yorkers pack into the ICP to see the screening. Photo by Dean Moses

“I felt very sad for the filmmaker Selina that the film missed many film festivals where it would have been screened, which is quite a shame. She worked really hard on it,” Cooper told the New York Metro ahead of the screening.

Despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cooper did not let up. She spent time delving deep into her extensive catalog of images to put together a new book of previously unpublished work called Spray Nation, and in the process discovered photos she had forgotten.

“I had no idea. I would never have gone back, it was like over for me. So it was fun, for example the European edition has this on the cover,” Cooper said, pointing to the back cover of the book. “Me too liked, but actually I like those two women on the train better,” she continued, untangling a large poster.

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

“I have 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 will travel around the world. Let’s take these wonderful pictures and what do I do? I get a story about pollen. In fact, I live what I thought I did, but not for National Geographic. Turns out I really wasn’t that kind of photographer. I wasn’t interested in this kind of story and so I travel all over the world. I shoot graffiti and street art. I got what I wanted but not in the way I thought it was going to happen. I’m telling you this because I think there’s a lesson for photographers to focus on the things they’re good at and really enjoy,” Cooper said.

With the current easing of pandemic restrictions, Cooper is capturing moments both in New York and around the world. Most recently, she photographed the Pride Parade in front of the StoneWall Inn and street art in Congo, Africa, so the question remains: what will be her next big project?

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

“I always keep my eyes open. I don’t really know what will be next. But I’m hoping that something will catch my attention and I’ll pursue it. Now I spend more time organizing my files than taking more pictures. I’d say I’m just trying to get it all done in a way that could actually be left behind and be part of the story. I think that [Graffiti] is a huge art movement, it’s grown into this huge art movement. I don’t think it’s as well understood as it could be. There are some amazing graffiti writers out there and you won’t find any graffiti pieces at MOMA. MOMA, for example, is a contemporary art museum. Why haven’t contemporary art museums accepted some of these amazing works of art? I think it’s going to happen, and that’s why I want my section of the story to be organized in a way that people can research,” Cooper said.

ICP viewers gave the screening a thunderous round of applause and even stayed to see the William Klein exhibit, which runs through September 12. Spray Nation is currently available as a box set containing postcards and a poster. The stand-alone hardcover book will be released on September 6th.

National Geographic. Photo by Dean Moses
Cooper speaks with ICP presenter Amy Touchette. PHoto by Dean Moses

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