Martha Cooper’s Influence: Inspiration, Imitation, and Flattery

For the silly folks who consider themselves ordained to be critics, the prodigious street art scene in New York just bubbles with possibilities.

One of the favorite criticisms of a street artists’ piece today is its’ lack of originality, whether because it closely resembles the style of anothers’ work already on the street, or because it seems like an outright appropriation.  Imitation is not always interpreted as flattery.

It’s a fine line to tread for any creative person – dancer, singer, fashion designer, or stencil artist – when they decide to “pay homage” to the work of another, or merely to love it so much that is serves as an “influence”.   One recent discovery on the street by New York street art photographer Jaime Rojo included this wheat-paste of a pretty famous image from the New York photographer, Diane Arbus, smacked onto a bed of tropical flowers by Shin Shin:

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962), by Diane Arbus. On the right

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962), by Diane Arbus. On the right street artist JC2 colors the grenade red. (photo Jaime Rojo)

A quick search of the Arbus image reveals that it has served as inspiration for other street artists here,  and here, and here, and here, and even in Spokane!  Diane Arbus passed away in 1971 and this is one of her images that has passed through the years into the popular conscience.  A case could be made that the image somehow belongs to the people to do with it as they wish, invoking new meanings or recall old ones.  Maybe.  Ask Che Guevara.

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Ready for Anything! Martha Cooper as shot by Jazi Rock

Martha Cooper has been taking pictures for more than fifty years. Yes, you read it right. With a continuously curious mind and sharp eye, Martha Cooper takes photos wherever she goes (including  Japan, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Surinam, to name a few), and it is a rare day you will see her without her camera draped around her neck.

Well known in the New York City graffiti and Street Art scene, she’s seen her images in National Geographic, Smithsonian and Natural History Magazines as well as several dozen books and journals.  Her photographs of New York’s streets and people are also burned into the minds of thousands; particularly the minds of young artists worldwide who examined their own creative skills after laying their eyes on “Subway Art”, the book she and Henry Chalfant published a quarter century ago.  Many have since used Martha’s work as inspiration for their own.

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Cooper’s now iconic image of graffiti writer Dondi was the inspiration for the work by Grotesk on the right.

Ms. Cooper is no diva, but she is direct. Well traveled and warm, she smiles and laughs easily when talking with most people, and when the subject is photography, she easily shares her knowledge and opinion with you. In the past few years, a number of artists have been inspired by her work, and while humble, she is proud of the ongoing influence it has had.

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Easy173 did a mural (left) based on her photo of Dondi (right) (photos Martha Cooper)

Brooklyn Street Art: How do you feel when your work is appropriated and re-purposed by another artist?

Martha Cooper: I’m flattered the artists are actually looking at my work and liking it well enough to create something new based on it.

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This image from “Street Play” by Martha was reinterpreted by Nazza on an LP vinyl. (photo Martha Cooper)

 

Street artist Chris Stain credits the photography of Ms. Cooper for shaping his own view of art and culture, and her impact can not be overestimated in his view.  He has poured over the pages of her books for years and internalized the imagery as well as the messages they convey about urban culture, the hip hop movement, and people.

“Martha’s influence on my work began back in 1984 when I first stole a copy of ‘Subway Art’. Graffiti hadn’t been documented so intimately (except by writers) in my opinion up until this point. I sat for hours day after day studying the photos, turning the book sideways and upside down trying to come up with my own styles.

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“Urban Harmony” (upper right) by Chris Stain incorporates 3 of Martha Coopers images into one of his pieces (2 shown here)


 

 

Had it not been for her initial documentation I don’t think graffiti or hip hop would be the world wide phenomenon it is today. With the release of ‘Hip Hop Files’ a few years ago I got more of an insight into her photo journalistic work; Once again she was capturing the essence of the birth of a movement.

When I look at those photos today at 37 I feel like I’m 11 years old again.  I am met with the same excitement as when I first witnessed them. But more importantly I have the same hope that people can build their dreams out of seemingly nothing.

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Chris Stain and Armsrock pose for Martha Cooper in front of some of Chris’s work that was influenced by Martha’s photographs. (photo © Martha Cooper)

 

 

 

I came across ‘Street Play’ and immediately connected with the photographs of kids playing in their neighborhoods. This time I contacted Martha and asked permission to work from some of the pictures. She kindly obliged. Since then I have worked from a number of her photographs.

Her work speaks to me directly not only because she is from Baltimore but because she goes to the “heart” of the matter.  Whether its Dondi hanging on and painting in-between subway cars, Ken Swift floor rockin’ at Common Ground, or a child holding his pigeon to the sky on a rooftop, Martha’s work is undeniably not only the most prolific but some of the most important documentation of organic cultures and city life to have grown out of New York and America as a whole.” – Chris Stain

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“Among the artists who have ‘re-interpreted’ my photos include the Burning Candy Crew in London.  Henry Chalfant and I were recently there for the London release of ‘Subway Art’ at Black Rat Gallery and Burning Candy painted a lot of canvases from Subway Art.”

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Whistling while they work, these goulish Sweet Toof train writers influenced by photos by Martha Cooper in “Subway Art”

Brooklyn Street Art: Did you think that eventually your work would be influential to a generation of artists and photographers?

Martha Cooper: Not at all. I would say that my work is pretty much unknown to artists and photographers of my own generation so it’s especially gratifying to connect with younger artists and photogs.

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An image by Martha Cooper on the left was interpreted in a large mural street artist Armsrock did with Chris Stain in Brooklyn at the end of July. Says Martha, “I took that photo on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) in 1978. Don’t know who the boy is or anything more about his drawing. The photo is part of a series published in my book ‘Street Play’.” (photo on right by Jaime Rojo)

 

see a video of the mural above being created here

Brooklyn Street Art: What’s your impression of the current state of street art in New York?
Martha Cooper: Well I’m definitely not an expert or any kind of art historian so I can’t give you a definitive evaluation. However  I love walking around and being surprised by all the fresh stuff going up all over the place. If it weren’t for street art, NYC would be turning into a bland and boring city.

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“Shepard Fairey has also worked with two of the images from ‘Street Play’, says Martha. Fairey selected five of the troops from this group of toughs when creating this poster called “Defiant Youth” this year. (photo Martha Cooper, poster Shepard Fairey)

 

Brooklyn Street Art: Why aren’t there more female street artists?
Martha Cooper: I have no idea. I wish there were more. I’m working on another little sticker book, this one about the smaller name badges. I couldn’t find even one active “Hello My Name Is” female stickerer. Do you know any?

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Shepard Fairey only slightly changed this image of kids jumping off a fire escape onto a pile of mattresses when he converted it into a stencil. This spring and summer a version of the image was made by Obey’s clothing line into skateboards, caps, t-shirts, and bags along with others of Martha’s “Street Play” photos.  (photo on left Martha Cooper)

Brooklyn Street Art: When you hit the street, camera in hand, do you consider yourself more of a photo-journalist, or an artist?
Martha Cooper: Neither–an ethnographer.

Brooklyn Street Art: Do you have a word of advice to a street art photographer starting today in New York?
Martha Cooper: Back-up!

– Good advice from a person who has catalogued perhaps hundreds of thousands of images of graffiti and street art over the last 30 years. We continued our dialogue about the use of Martha’s images over the years, and she added this clarification, I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to my own photography. I absolutely hate when designers want to mess with my photos. I want my photos to be used as I took them. However, when an artist wants to take one of my photos and turn it into a completely different piece of art, I don’t mind at all.

To paraphrase Martha and the critics, the guidance one would offer to a street artist (and any artist) is “Be original”.

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Special thanks to Jazi Rock, who at 12 years old “was infected by the graffiti bug when he saw Martha Cooper’s infamous book circulate around his neighborhood” of Baltimore.  See more at his website.

Photo of Martha above by JaziRock – his website JaziRock.com is HERE

 

See Martha Cooper this weekend with her newest book "Going Postal"

See Martha Cooper this weekend with her newest book “Going Postal”

 

Martha Cooper will be at the MBP Urban Arts Festival this Saturday October 3rd in Bushwick Brooklyn. A multitude of street artists, musical acts, skaters, vendors, and live painting events will be there. You can learn more about the festival HERE.

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The day before that on October 2nd, Martha Cooper will be at The New York Art Book Fair.  Stop by the SCB booth (Z-01).

Friday, Oct 2nd
2pm – 4pm: Daze, Ghost and Papermonster (with dirtypilot.com online gallery)
4pm-6pm: Martha Cooper (photojournalist/NY graffiti scene documentarian), author of Tag Town, Hip Hop Files, and Street Play

Saturday, Oct 3rd
11am – 1pm: Alain “KET” Maridueña (hip hop artist/activist)
2pm – 4pm: Ron English (contemporary pop artist)

You can learn more about the Book Fair HERE.

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Read Martha Cooper’s Blog on Juxtapoz

Read Martha Cooper on 120z.Prophet

“Subway Art” 25th Anniversary Edition

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