It’s hard to picture a world without the great distribution machine of the internet, which is why the phenomenon of street art and it’s sudden explosion across the globe, realised by virtue of the publication of one book, is that much more extraordinary. Martha Cooper is a documentary photographer who captured New York City’s underground street scene during the early 70s and 80s, introducing Hip Hop, rap, break dancing and graffiti to the rest of the planet, and in so doing, albeit by accident, catalysed what was to become a global popular art movement. Subway Art (1984), affectionately dubbed the ‘Graffiti Bible’, was for years the only available book about street art. For anyone who didn’t live in New York City, the book became a source of inspiration, used to study the techniques of the movement’s originators.
Incongruous to her reputation is Cooper’s disarming modesty. At sixty-nine, she is still convinced that she is not an extraordinary photographer, calling herself instead an ethnographer. Her introduction to graffiti stemmed from her documentation of the uninhibited antics and creative play of the neighborhood kids of lower Manhattan during the 70s, as seen in her book Street Play. Anti-self-reflexive as she is, her subject matter is the most important part of her photography, and yet her fly-on-the-wall-like ability to capture authentic street play begs the question – How did Cooper, an adult, capture the sometimes dangerous, often plain naughty antics of kids, without intimidating them? Not without a naughty streak herself, Cooper’s most recent tricks include stealing hand-drawn postal stickers from around the world by craftily removing them with adhesive remover and pasting them in a sticker album. - (photo credit : Alex Bershaw & copy credit : I ART JOBURG )