Martha Cooper Interview

April 20, 2009

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Tag Town is a new book of photos from photgrapher Martha Cooper who, back in the ’80s, shot NYC’s infant tagging graff scene back when there were just a handfull of people out there doing it. This was the absolute beginning of what you call street art today and Martha recorded it tirelessy. She would sit for hours waiting for one train to pass after getting a call from a writer letting her know it was coming. There would be only one shot for a photo since it was most likely to be buffed out the following day. Martha did this out of curiousness, pure interest and love. She thought this was a movement of the minute. She had no idea that her lens was capturing the very beginning of one the greatest art movements of our time. Tag Town, published by Dokument Forlag, is the first book to showcase early tags in their context. It’s a lesson in street art, containing early photos of tags dating back to the 1960s, with interviews from New York graffiti pioneers such as Blade, Part 1, and Snake 1, artists who tag-inspired work helped found what we know as the street art movement. Also contained are some great early artictles on graffiti and tagging dating back to 1973. It’s a 112 paged book worthy of any art lover’s collection. Keep your eyes peeled for it.

Interview from Fecalface.com

Fecal Face: Where did you grow up, and how did you end up in NYC?

Martha Cooper: I was born in Baltimore but left for Grinnell College in Iowa when I was 16. After that I lived in a lot of places- including Thailand, England, Japan, and Rhode Island. I moved to New York City in 1975 because it was the center of editorial photography and I wanted to be where the action was.

Did you have a specific style that you were drawn to?

I particularly liked tags with features such as crowns, halos, eyes, and arrows. Stay High type stick figures with crowns were my faves.

Did you ever give tagging a shot?

Many times I tried to develop a decent looking tag but failed miserably. It never looked cool. I found out how hard it was to repeatedly write with style.

Any close calls with getting your equipment robbed?

This was something I always worried about but never happened. Once someone kicked in my car window showering me with glass while I was in the car but I was able to drive away.

What was that about?

I was shooting some kids building a clubhouse in a vacant lot on the Lower Eastside and a guy started yelling at me to go away. So I got in my car and he came running up and motioned for me to roll down the window. I saw that he had a knife so I refused but before I could start the car and drive away, he kicked in the window. This was in the 70’s while I was working on the series of photos I published in Street Play. I will be exhibiting those same photos at Subliminal Projects in LA in mid-January 2009.

Are you a collector of things? If so, what are some of the things you collect?

As a photographer, I am a collector of images. I have mental lists of categories of things I’m looking for and photograph them when I see them. Tags were a collection as were painted memorial walls (see R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art). My next book, Going Postal, is about hand drawn postal stickers. That grew out of my collection of sticker photos. Another photo collection is urban vernacular architecture. In addition, I collect vintage images of women photographers and have many on my website kodakgirl.com

In an interview somewhere you say that you never meant to take iconic photos and that you had other goals… what other goals were you speaking of?

I photographed in a spirit of historic preservation. I thought that graffiti was a phenomenon unique to New York City that would disappear and I would have a record of it. I never predicted that New York style graffiti would spread worldwide. Of course I also hoped that I would be able to publish stories about graffiti that would help me reach my primary goal of becoming a solvent freelance photographer.

Ever get mixed with in any beef or one crew?

I photographed anyone that asked me to and tried to stay away from beef.

You run into many if any female taggers back then?

I saw tags by girls but Lady Pink and Lizzie were the only female writers I actually met.

How many years would you say you focused on photographing graffiti and tagging?

I intensely photographed graffiti for 3-4 years from 1979-1982. When I first began, I was a staff photographer at the New York Post. Eventually I left that secure job to be able to spend more time photographing trains. I mostly shot trains in the South Bronx and Harlem, and tags in Washington Heights. After leaving the Post, I had to look for photography work to support myself. In 1982, while I was documenting graffiti, I was also shooting freelance stories for National Geographic. For example I shot a cover story about pollen, a far cry from graffiti!

Were you doing most of your work solo or did you move with the artists as they worked?

When I went into the yards, I went with writers. When trying to shoot their pieces, I spent countless hours standing alone in vacant lots in the South Bronx waiting for trains with freshly painted pieces to come by. Sometimes writers called to tell me that they had a new piece up and which line it was on. Then I would try to shoot it as quickly as possible before it was buffed by transit or painted over by other writers.

Did you feel accepted by the taggers?

Writers always wanted photos of their work but very few had cameras or could pay for film and processing. Because I always tried to give photos back to the artists, I was accepted as a photographer and trusted as someone who appreciated their art and wouldn’t report them to the cops.

When you were shooting back then, where did the photos go? What were they used for?

Mostly the photos went into my personal archives where they remain today. I tried to pitch articles about graffiti to magazines but in the US, there was such a strong anti-graffiti sentiment that no one wanted to be associated with the subject in a positive way. I was able to publish a few stories in Europe, including a landmark one in the German magazine, Art. One of the reasons that Henry Chalfant and I decided to try to make a book about graffiti was because we had had so little success in publishing our photos.

You are interested in and studied anthropology… When shooting these did you sort of think you were recording some sort of human language as if shooting a future hieroglyphics?

I shot tags because I wanted a record of them. I wasn’t trying to make my own art. I was trying to figure out how they differed from each other and what similarities there were. I defined categories and filed them accordingly. In some cases I wanted to see their context but mostly I just wanted to study what they looked like and to allow others to study them in the future. I was using my camera as a very efficient tool to make a record of something that would otherwise be lost.

What mainly drew you to shooting graffiti and tagging?

In a mass produced world, I am attracted to anything made by hand and this is a persistent theme in my photos. Before I got into graffiti, I was shooting kids playing creatively when their parents weren’t watching. Those photos are in my book Street Play. Graffiti was a direct offshoot from that project.

I was fascinated by graffiti because I saw that, in spite of the difficulty in obtaining materials and the threat of arrest, kids had invented their own art form with its own aesthetics. They were painting for each other, not for money. Pure art! Because the art was ephemeral, photos could preserve the process and the pieces. This made subway graffiti and tags ideal subjects for still photography.

What are some things you enjoy photographing today?

Several years ago I bought a house in a crime and drug ridden neighborhood in southwest Baltimore. My idea was to get to know the community and document it over time. I take the bus to Baltimore whenever I can and am enjoying that project a lot.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

I don’t play favorites!

Ok, any photographers you admire?

I’m a big fan and collector of anonymous snapshots.

What do you do for work now?

I mainly work for non-profit institutions in the city shooting for various exhibitions and publications. I have been the Director of Photography at City Lore (www.citylore.org) for over 20 years. I also photograph regularly for TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York) http://www.tauny.org. Lately I’ve been shooting some hip hop such as the Women in Hip Hop Festival in Berlin in August and the Red Bull BC One in Paris a week ago.

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One Response to “Martha Cooper Interview”


  1. Check out Martha Cooper + Henry Chalfant’s new project – the deluxe 25th anniversary edition of their book SUBWAY ART. Finally in a beautiful, large format that shows off the spectacular photography.


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