Documentary photographer, Martha Cooper, has published approximately 20 books, including the worldwide classic Subway Art, a collaboration with Henry Chalfant that was first published in 1984. Known as the “bible” among graffiti artists, the publication has been in print for over three decades, and is one of the best selling art books of all time.
Images from Subway Art, among dozens of other photographs, are on view at Steven Kasher Gallery in a comprehensive exhibition of approximately 40 years of Cooper’s greatness. Known for one of the most highly regarded bodies of work capturing the emergence of early hip-hop and graffiti culture in New York City, Cooper has also created an extensive collection of environmental portraits of contemporary street artists.
Her dedication to the art form, its preservation, and its legacy, is evident in the sincerity of her images. A pure kind of beauty that captures the grace, humanity and poetry of the birth of a global phenomenon grounded in a community of artists is revealed in the rhythm and texture of the exhibition. The work is presented in a variety of sizes, unframed, and in a continuous succession of portraits, cityscapes and street photography that captures the joy, thrill and poetry of the art form.
The intuition, skill, innovation and presence of mind of early graffiti writers wafts off the walls of the gallery in suspended animation. Several of Cooper’s photographs capture artwork spanning the height and width of whole subway cars cruising along above-ground tracks as they slice through stretches of blue sky, buildings, and commuter platforms like sumptuous moveable feasts.
Other images feature silhouetted train riders waiting on unlit afternoon outdoor platforms, their bodies framing gorgeous painterly pieces that utilize a broad color spectrum to startling effect. The ephemeral nature of the artwork installed on subway car exteriors, usually only lasting from a few hours to a few days, required Cooper to have close ties with the artistic community and a Zen-like patience to wait in designated viewing spots to capture the perfect glimpses of one-of-a-kind epic pieces.
Evidence of her involvement as a community member is also on view through intimate images of artists at home hanging out with friends, sidewalk breakdancing sessions, and playful moments of recreation amongst the painters. For anyone who has a special place in their heart for the culture of graffiti in its heyday and all the love, vision, camaraderie, and inspiration it has inspired for generations thereafter, this exhibition will warm your soul. For others, Cooper’s body of work offers a remarkable view inside the makings of a culture native to the neglected neighborhoods and dilapidated yet vibrantly alive streets of late 20th century New York City.
Martha Cooper at Steven Kasher Gallery is on view until June 3rd, 2017.