MARTHA COOPER IS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPHERS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT. YET WHILE HER NAME MAY BE UNBEKNOWNST TO YOU, CHANCES ARE EVEN YOUR MOM HAS SEEN ONE OF HER PHOTOGRAPHS. SHE HAS BEEN DOCUMENTING STREET CULTURE SINCE THE EARLY 80s FROM SUBWAY CAR GRAFFITI TO STREET KIDS, AND HAS PUBLISHED A NUMBER OF BOOKS.
IN THE DIRTY EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, MIAMI ARTIST BOOKSIIII BISCHOFF CHATS WITH THE STREET ART ICON WHO OFFERS AN INTERESTING POINT OF VIEW ON WHAT USED TO BE CONSIDERED A MAN’S PROFESSION.
TEXT BooksIIII Bischof
PHOTOGRAPHY Joe Russo & Kerry McLaney
BOOKS: MARTHA COOPER, WHO ARE YOU . . . REALLY? WHERE DID YOU COME FROM? I MEAN, CAN YOU GIVE US A UNIQUE, IN DEPTH BACKGROUND, ONE THAT MIGHT INCLUDE A PECULIAR MOMENT OF SELF REALIZATION?
MARTHA COOPER: That’s a tall order. I’m not generally introspective. I’m a combination of my parents. My dad was an enthusiastic photographer and my mom was a high school English and journalism teacher. They both valued creativity and encouraged independence. I’m from a family of feminists and grew up with a strong belief in women’s rights.
B: HAS THERE EVER BEEN A BODY OF WORK YOU HAVE DEVELOPED WHICH WAS INFLUENCED BY, OR A DIRECT COMMENTARY ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS? IF NOT, COULD YOU EVER SEE YOURSELF WORKING ON SUCH A PROJECT?
MC: After publishing Hip Hop Files in 2004, I regretted not having made more of an effort to locate and photograph some of the female pioneers. I decided to shoot b-girls because I felt that women’s contributions to, and participation in, hip hop culture had been ignored. Rokafella wrote a very tough, feminist intro for the We B*Girlz book. The book itself did not sell particularly well however it led b-girls from around the world to connect with each other. The result has been a lot of discussions among them about women’s role in hip hop, and a lot more events for them, many of which I’ve been lucky enough to attend.
I had plenty of negative experiences while I was trying to break into a newspaper career in the 70′s. Odd as it seems now, photography was then regarded as a man’s job. When I was hired by the New York Post in 1975, I was the only woman on a staff of 14 photographers. Around that time I began collecting all kinds of images of female photographers and now have an extensive and very serious collection as well as a website www.kodakgirl.com dedicated to women photographers. This year I published a book of my collection called Kodakgirl which will be released this month by the German fine art publisher, Steidl. The Kodak Girl was one of Kodak’s earliest advertising icons from the late 1800′s. She was depicted in ads as an independent, energetic and adventurous photographer — like me.
B: WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW? MULTIPLE PROJECTS? LOOKING FORWARD TO A FUTURE PROJECT?
MC: I always like to have multiple projects going, both personal and professional. As a freelancer that’s the best way to keep afloat. Lately I’ve been trying to pull, organize and publish material from old files. On December 9th I launched a book published by Dokument in Sweden of photos I took of tattooing in Japan when I lived there in 1970. Aiko has made some gorgeous stencil prints based on the images so we are going to have an exhibit together at a tattoo studio/gallery in Brooklyn. I’m happy to be able to connect these early photos with my present interest in street art.
On a completely different front, I have been documenting a difficult Southwest Baltimore neighborhood for the past 6 years. I take the bus to Baltimore, my hometown, every other weekend or so and walk around shooting street life. I try to give back prints of the photos and people are really appreciative. They call me “the picture lady”. This is a purely personal project although I may eventually try to publish a book. This is the kind of photography I most enjoy.
B: CAN YOU ELABORATE? IS THERE A UNIQUE STORY OR RELATIONSHIP THAT HAS DEVELOPED THROUGH THIS PROJECT?
MC: I see myself as a street photographer. I wanted to try shooting in a place where there was more community life on the street than in New York City and where better than my hometown? The relationship that has developed is me with the city of Baltimore, a place I felt connected to although I hadn’t lived there for over 50 years.
Finally, as you know, I’m working in Wynwood in Miami, an area you and Typoe first introduced me to in 2009 through Primary Flight. This is my third year documenting the art, artists and neighborhood, and I’ve had a great time watching the place come together. I’ve been lucky to have been able to shoot for both Primary Flight and Goldman Properties and also a bit for myself during a Fountainhead Residency. I now have over 50.000 photos in my Miami files!
I’ve recently been in touch with some of Miami 80′s writers. They’ve gotten together about 25 early Miami graffiti crews who will be painting a collaborative wall at the Bakehouse. I’m super excited to watch and document what they do.
B: THE 80’S MIAMI WRITER PROJECT SOUNDS SOLID. THE BAKEHOUSE IS THEIR OLD STOMPING GROUND AND IMPORTANT TO MIAMI GRAFFITI HISTORY. WILL YOU BE DOCUMENTING THIS PROJECT THIS DECEMBER? I HIGHLY ENCOURAGE IT.
MC: I definitely plan to document this. I have been in touch with some of the writers. Unfortunately they are starting to paint tomorrow so I will miss the first day but will head over there as soon as I can. I’m really looking forward to this.
B: HOW MUCH TIME HAVE YOU BEEN SPENDING IN MIAMI? DO YOU FEEL LIKE SOMETHING HISTORICAL IS HAPPENING IN OUR FANTASTIC CITY?
MC: I’ve made numerous trips since first meeting you in 2009 but my experience has been pretty much just walking around Wynwood, so my perspective is limited. Tony Goldman has been extremely generous about flying me to Miami and putting me up and that’s given me the opportunity to meet and shoot many different artists at work. I do feel that the art scene as a whole is turning Miami into an internationally recognized cultural center. News of the explosion of massive art walls in Wynwood has traveled the world. People are finally recognizing the positive power of public art.
B: PUBLIC ARTS, TRADITIONALLY, HAS ALWAYS EXISTED, SOME PROJECTS ARE MORE POWERFUL THAN OTHERS. DO YOU THINK IT IS THE POWER OF PUBLIC ARTS OR IS IT THE POWER OF STREET ART, GRAFFITI, AND THE COUNTER CULTURE SWAGGER?
MC: Of course it’s all those and more. I’m not much of a cultural analyst. It’s not always obvious why some projects succeed and others fail. Maybe Wynwood was the ideal place to draw positive attention to graffiti and street art. The warehouses didn’t have a lot going for them otherwise. New York City has some amazing walls but you don’t see a lot about them in the mainstream press. They’re considered “old news” and get sort of buried in all the other crazy stuff that goes on all the time here.
B: A FRIEND OF MINE REFERRED TO YOU AS THE BILL CUNNINGHAM OF STREET ART. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT STATEMENT?
MC: Who said that?! That’s a very perceptive comparison and one I’ve often made myself although until the documentary about him came out this year, I wasn’t sure that people outside New York City knew who Bill was. Bill is maybe my all time favorite photographer so it’s an honor to be compared with him. I used to see him riding around on his bicycle a lot back in the 70′s when I worked for the New York Post. I think our approach to photography is similar. We’re collectors. We like to get out and look, document what we see and organize our images into categories. Our work is very much based on finding and recording specific subject matter, not on the quality of light or the angle. For these reasons, I prefer not to be called an “artist”.
When I go out shooting however, I’m looking for broader subject matter than just street art. I’m interested in all kinds of individual creative expressions–clothing, hairstyles, vernacular architecture, hand painted signs, tattoos, yard decorations, painted cars etc. etc. My general theme is “art in everyday life”. Street art is just one small part of that.
B: DON’T YOU FEEL THAT ALL “ARTISTS” GET OUT, LOOK, EXPERIENCE, AND DOCUMENT IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER? WHAT IS IT ABOUT THAT TITLE YOU SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM?
MC: I prefer to think of myself as a documentarian rather than an artist. My photographs are trying to show something specific. They are very literal to the point of being boring sometimes. For example I’m more interested in shooting what tools an artist uses to paint a wall than I am in trying to show how he or she is feeling about doing it. If I’m lucky, I might capture something about feelings–but that’s not what I’m looking for. Most artists are more interested in interpreting their experiences than I am. Some photographs are more expressive of the photographer than the subject. Mine are more about the subject. I think of my photos as a means of historic preservation.
B: CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR COLLABORATION WITH SHEPARD FAIREY? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE APPROPRIATION OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY OVER THE YEARS?
MC: While it’s annoying when my images are appropriated for commercial purposes such as T-Shirts, it’s flattering when artists adapt them in their work. Because I’d seen so many examples over the years, I organized a show at Carmichael Gallery in LA called Remix where I asked 50 artists to make work based on any of my images they wanted. I was thrilled that Shepard made a couple of prints with my photos. It was especially exciting for me to see versions of these wheat pasted on walls in Soho, the Bronx and even Wynwood.
B: IS THERE A MOMENT YOU HAVE DOCUMENTED IN THE PAST THAT YOU GO TO SLEEP WITH EVERY NIGHT? MAYBE ONE YOU WAKE UP TO EVERY MORNING?
MC: My freelance photography career has had its ups and downs. There were some very lean years. There’s no one moment that sticks with me, but let’s just say I can now sleep soundly at night and wake up ready to roll. It’s great to be able to make a living doing something you love. I’m happy with the choices I made.