In the late 1970s, Martha Cooper was a staff photographer at the New York Post when she found her way into the world of underground graffiti art during a time when it covered the city’s trains. Introduced by one of the kids she photographed on the Lower East Side to Dondi, a celebrated artist in the scene, Cooper spent four decades documenting the hidden world and recording the work of some of its best known artists of the 1970s and ’80s, including Daze, Futura and Seen. Her photographs include some of the defining images of graffiti art and its writers. Her books on the subject, such as Subway Art, with Henry Chalfant, which has been reissued several times since its release in 1984 and been called the “bible” of graffiti art, have helped what was essentially a local subculture inspire a global audience. A new show of her photographs is on view until June 3 at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York, the first art gallery to represent her work.
Cooper’s attention to the subject reflects a longstanding interest in DIY art and culture—she studied ethnology at Oxford, and photographed traditional tattoo artists in Japan in the early 1970s (a book of these images, Tokyo Tattoo 1970, was published in 2012). Cooper’s engagement with the New York City graffiti community has been long and deep, reflecting the symbiotic relationships she built with graffiti writers, who encouraged her to record their sometimes short-lived work, sometimes tipping her off to finished pieces. As Cooper says in a statement from the gallery, it was only after she began going along at night to document the process that she saw the risks involved in making the pieces she photographed. “Until then I had not really understood how they had been able to paint such large pieces—often covering an entire subway car—in one night,” she says, a process that was still a mystery for most who saw the end result.