Seeing Baltimore With Martha Cooper

The Photographer Takes You On a Tour Through Sowebo

Walking in the street with Martha Cooper is part anthropology, part history, part celebrity, and always discovery. Known for 40 years of documenting with a clear eye the emergence of graffiti and hip hop culture and for introducing it to a world audience, Ms. Cooper will tell you that her primary interest has always been to simply observe closely and let the images speak for themselves.

brooklyn-street-art-rams-doke-soviet-arek-jaime-rojo-baltimore-05-11-web-28Mama Kat and White Mike welcome you to B-More. Mural by Rams, Doke, Soviet and Arik (photo © Jaime Rojo)

With a gentle frankness she repels your impulse to canonize her and her work and prefers to talk about the people she meets and her beloved hometown Baltimore, the site of her six-year photography project in the neighborhood of Sowebo. In much the same way her journalistic intuition led her to Brooklyn to meet graffiti king Dondi in the mid seventies, she has slowly earned the trust and friendship of many people in this neighborhood challenged by dire economics and the influence of drugs and guns.


White Mike talks to Martha about the mural and some neighborhood news. Mural by Rams, Doke, Soviet and Arik (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Tailing Martha, and that’s what you do in an effort to keep up with the photographer with yellow shoelaces, you soon hear young voices calling “Picture Lady!”, “It’s Picture Lady!”. Across the street, up the block, on the stoops, clusters of folk cooling themselves turn their collective heads to see Martha with her heaving backpack clipping up the sidewalk toward them. The littlest among them come right up and bob back and forth talking with animation to her and she answers each question and inquiry about her camera and what she’s been up to.


Man and his best friend in the shade at the Sowebo festival (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Setting the backpack on the pavement under a tree, she unzips compartments and produces printed photos of the neighbors that she made since the last time she came by. With thanks and some storytelling and maybe another pose for the camera, Ms. Cooper smoothly departs up the block, scanning all sides of the street for more photo opportunities. Here we stop for a tour of a garden, there we see an abandoned lot converted to a grassy lawn-chaired community barbeque, and finally we are upon a large graffiti wall installation. “Welcome to Baltimore!” it cries and within moments some passersby greet her to talk about the piece and pose in front of their names on the rollcall – a tribute to some of the folks in the community.


Napping on a landing at the Sowebo festival (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Your day includes a street fair with crafts and bands and crabcakes and lemonade that Martha thinks is too watery and skateboarders with tattoos and piercings doing a double take and figuring out how to approach this familiar lady with a giant camera and chat for a moment with her. Many times. Graciously. Finally a small crowd gathers as she shoots a new box truck being painted on this leafy street, with youth piled up on stoops and even sitting on the black pavement of the street for a front row seat while a skateboarder does tricks for just the right flick. It’s community. It’s creativity. It’s Cooper.


A little girl with her puppy pose for Martha (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Three lil’ sweet rascals hop like popcorn when they see the “Picture Lady” (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Action figure in a private garden (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Martha and her cousin Sally take us on a hike over the railroad tracks to a skatepark. One of the riders falls, and Sally digs through her purse to find a band-aid, which he’s too cool to accept. (photo © Jaime Rojo)


An unusual site that is normal for Sowebo; A stable with this beloved cart pony owned by an “Arab”, the old-custom name for local street vendors who sell produce from horse-drawn carts. (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Tagged pigeons at the stables (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Street Artist Gaia in downtown Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Gaia in downtown Baltimore pays tribute to Martha Cooper by interpreting a photo of hers and pasting it on the street. (photo © Jaime Rojo)


…upon close inspection, Martha approves (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Gaia pays tribute to important people in the history of Baltimore’s downtown  with a retro version of work similar to that of French Street Artist JR. (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Gaia in downtown Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Gaia in downtown Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Unknown artist in downtown Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Unknown artist in downtown Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Nanook in downtown Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Looks like AIKO was in Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


As soon as artist Adam Stab got the news that Martha was in town he procured a small truck to paint, and waited until she arrived to begin. (photo © Jaime Rojo)


A little lift helps the reach. Adam Stab (photo © Jaime Rojo)


Adam Stab (photo © Jaime Rojo)


101 KSW in Baltimore (photo © Jaime Rojo)


The sky going back to NYC (photo © Jaime Rojo)