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Home FEATURES Martha Cooper Interview

Martha Cooper Interview
Written by Trippe   
Friday, 05 December 2008 07:31
Photographer Martha Cooper just released Tag Town a book of her photos which document the infant NYC tagging & graffiti scene in the late '70s.

Tag Town is a new book of photos from photgrapher Martha Cooper who, back in the '80s, shot NYC's infant tagging graff scene back when there were just a handfull of people out there doing it. This was the absolute beginning of what you call street art today and Martha recorded it tirelessy. She would sit for hours waiting for one train to pass after getting a call from a writer letting her know it was coming. There would be only one shot for a photo since it was most likely to be buffed out the following day. Martha did this out of curiousness, pure interest and love. She thought this was a movement of the minute. She had no idea that her lens was capturing the very beginning of one the greatest art movements of our time.

Tag Town, published by Dokument Forlag, is the first book to showcase early tags in their context. It's a lesson in street art, containing early photos of tags dating back to the 1960s, with interviews from New York graffiti pioneers such as Blade, Part 1, and Snake 1, artists who tag-inspired work helped found what we know as the street art movement. Also contained are some great early artictles on graffiti and tagging dating back to 1973. It's a 112 paged book worthy of any art lover's collection. Keep your eyes peeled for it. You can get a copy on Amazon for only $18 right here.

Note: We just tore the pages out of the book and scanned them. The images in the book don't have the tears your see above.

Fecal Face: Where did you grow up, and how did you end up in NYC?

Martha Cooper: I was born in Baltimore but left for Grinnell College in Iowa when I was 16. After that I lived in a lot of places- including Thailand, England, Japan, and Rhode Island. I moved to New York City in 1975 because it was the center of editorial photography and I wanted to be where the action was.

Did you have a specific style that you were drawn to?

I particularly liked tags with features such as crowns, halos, eyes, and arrows. Stay High type stick figures with crowns were my faves.

Did you ever give tagging a shot?

Many times I tried to develop a decent looking tag but failed miserably. It never looked cool. I found out how hard it was to repeatedly write with style.

Any close calls with getting your equipment robbed?

This was something I always worried about but never happened. Once someone kicked in my car window showering me with glass while I was in the car but I was able to drive away.

What was that about?

I was shooting some kids building a clubhouse in a vacant lot on the Lower Eastside and a guy started yelling at me to go away. So I got in my car and he came running up and motioned for me to roll down the window. I saw that he had a knife so I refused but before I could start the car and drive away, he kicked in the window. This was in the 70's while I was working on the series of photos I published in Street Play. I will be exhibiting those same photos at Subliminal Projects in LA in mid-January 2009.

Are you a collector of things? If so, what are some of the things you collect?

As a photographer, I am a collector of images. I have mental lists of categories of things I'm looking for and photograph them when I see them. Tags were a collection as were painted memorial walls (see R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art). My next book, Going Postal, is about hand drawn postal stickers. That grew out of my collection of sticker photos. Another photo collection is urban vernacular architecture. In addition, I collect vintage images of women photographers and have many on my website kodakgirl.com

In an interview somewhere you say that you never meant to take iconic photos and that you had other goals... what other goals were you speaking of?

I photographed in a spirit of historic preservation. I thought that graffiti was a phenomenon unique to New York City that would disappear and I would have a record of it. I never predicted that New York style graffiti would spread worldwide. Of course I also hoped that I would be able to publish stories about graffiti that would help me reach my primary goal of becoming a solvent freelance photographer.

Ever get mixed with in any beef or one crew?

I photographed anyone that asked me to and tried to stay away from beef.

You run into many if any female taggers back then?

I saw tags by girls but Lady Pink and Lizzie were the only female writers I actually met.

How many years would you say you focused on photographing graffiti and tagging?

I intensely photographed graffiti for 3-4 years from 1979-1982. When I first began, I was a staff photographer at the New York Post. Eventually I left that secure job to be able to spend more time photographing trains. I mostly shot trains in the South Bronx and Harlem, and tags in Washington Heights. After leaving the Post, I had to look for photography work to support myself. In 1982, while I was documenting graffiti, I was also shooting freelance stories for National Geographic. For example I shot a cover story about pollen, a far cry from graffiti!

Were you doing most of your work solo or did you move with the artists as they worked?

When I went into the yards, I went with writers. When trying to shoot their pieces, I spent countless hours standing alone in vacant lots in the South Bronx waiting for trains with freshly painted pieces to come by. Sometimes writers called to tell me that they had a new piece up and which line it was on. Then I would try to shoot it as quickly as possible before it was buffed by transit or painted over by other writers.

Did you feel accepted by the taggers?

Writers always wanted photos of their work but very few had cameras or could pay for film and processing. Because I always tried to give photos back to the artists, I was accepted as a photographer and trusted as someone who appreciated their art and wouldn't report them to the cops.

When you were shooting back then, where did the photos go? What were they used for?

Mostly the photos went into my personal archives where they remain today. I tried to pitch articles about graffiti to magazines but in the US, there was such a strong anti-graffiti sentiment that no one wanted to be associated with the subject in a positive way. I was able to publish a few stories in Europe, including a landmark one in the German magazine, Art. One of the reasons that Henry Chalfant and I decided to try to make a book about graffiti was because we had had so little success in publishing our photos.

You are interested in and studied anthropology... When shooting these did you sort of think you were recording some sort of human language as if shooting a future hieroglyphics?

I shot tags because I wanted a record of them. I wasn't trying to make my own art. I was trying to figure out how they differed from each other and what similarities there were. I defined categories and filed them accordingly. In some cases I wanted to see their context but mostly I just wanted to study what they looked like and to allow others to study them in the future. I was using my camera as a very efficient tool to make a record of something that would otherwise be lost.

What mainly drew you to shooting graffiti and tagging?

In a mass produced world, I am attracted to anything made by hand and this is a persistent theme in my photos. Before I got into graffiti, I was shooting kids playing creatively when their parents weren't watching. Those photos are in my book Street Play. Graffiti was a direct offshoot from that project.

I was fascinated by graffiti because I saw that, in spite of the difficulty in obtaining materials and the threat of arrest, kids had invented their own art form with its own aesthetics. They were painting for each other, not for money. Pure art! Because the art was ephemeral, photos could preserve the process and the pieces. This made subway graffiti and tags ideal subjects for still photography.

What are some things you enjoy photographing today?

Several years ago I bought a house in a crime and drug ridden neighborhood in southwest Baltimore. My idea was to get to know the community and document it over time. I take the bus to Baltimore whenever I can and am enjoying that project a lot.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

I don't play favorites!

Ok, any photographers you admire?

I'm a big fan and collector of anonymous snapshots.

What do you do for work now?

I mainly work for non-profit institutions in the city shooting for various exhibitions and publications. I have been the Director of Photography at City Lore (www.citylore.org) for over 20 years. I also photograph regularly for TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York) www.tauny.org. Lately I've been shooting some hip hop such as the Women in Hip Hop Festival in Berlin in August and the Red Bull BC One in Paris a week ago.

Here's a great video interview with Martha

Get a copy on Amazon for only $18 right here. {moscomment}

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contact FF

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Working in unconventional mediums such as woven blankets, puzzles, and faux marble, De La Hoz has pioneered an innovative style in a class of its own. Collages of white noise, flowers and tie-dye are all hand cut and assembled to create mystic portals of intrigue. Heavily influenced by themes of death and rebirth, past and present, and the collision of modern culture with antiquity; Form and Void is mysterious look into the odyssey of creation, destruction, and an examination of society at large. -show details

 

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Arrangement measures 24"x30", acrylic and aerosol on panel - inquires: info(at)ffdg.net

Michelle Fleck is a painter living in San Francisco. Her work focuses on the relationship between man and the landscape, and the marks we leave on it. Influenced by everyday life in the city, her paintings serve as snapshots of an ongoing intersection of the natural and man-made world. She strives to make work that has a sense of relevancy in a culture driven by a need for change and newness.

 

///
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GET THE SHOW DETAILS --- a bunch of NYCHOS

 

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Think how high those throw ups can be now.

 

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FULL CALENDARS: BAY AREA | NYC | LA

 


 

 

 

BANDES DE PUB / STRIP BOX

In a filmmaker's thinking, we wish more videos were done in this style. Too much editing and music with a lacking in actual content. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.


AJ Fosik in Tokyo at The Hellion Gallery

Matt Wagner recently emailed over some photos from The Hellion Gallery in Tokyo, who recently put together a show with AJ Fosik (Portland) called Beast From a Foreign Land. The gallery gave twelve of Fosik's sculptures to twelve Japanese artists (including Hiro Kurata who is currently showing in our group show Salt the Skies) to paint, burn, or build upon.


Ferris Plock - Online Show, April 25th

FFDG is pleased to announce an exclusive online show with San Francisco based Ferris Plock opening on Friday, April 25th (12pm Pacific Time) featuring 5 new medium sized acrylic paintings on wood.


GOLD BLOOD, MAGIC WEIRDOS

Backwoods Gallery in Melbourne played host to a huge group exhibition a couple of weeks back, with "Gold Blood, Magic Weirdos" Curated by Melbourne artist Sean Morris. Gold Blood brought together 25 talented painters, illustrators and comic artists from Australia, the US, Singapore, England, France and Spain - and marked the end of the Magic Weirdos trilogy, following shows in Perth in 2012 and London in 2013.


Jeremy Fish at LA's Mark Moore Gallery

San Francisco based Fecal Pal Jeremy Fish opened his latest solo show Hunting Trophies at LA's Mark Moore Gallery last week to massive crowds and cabin walls lined with imagery pertaining to modern conquest and obsession.


John Felix Arnold III on the Road to NYC

Well, John Felix Arnold III is at it again. This time, he and Carolyn LeBourgios packed an entire show into the back of a Prius and drove across the country to install it at Superchief Gallery in NYC. I met with him last week as he told me about the trip over delicious burritos at Taqueria Cancun (which is right across the street from FFDG and serves what I think is the best burrito in the city) as the self proclaimed "Only overweight artist in the game" spilled all the details.


FRENCH in Melbourne

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Henry Gunderson at Ever Gold, SF

Ever Gold opened a new solo show by NYC based Henry Gunderson a couple Saturday nights ago and it was literally packed. So packed I couldn't actually see most of the art - but a big crowd doesn't seem like a problem. I got a good laugh at what I would call the 'cock climbing wall' as it was one of the few pieces I could see over the crowd. I haven't gotten a chance to go back and check it all out again, but I'm definitely going to as the paintings that I could get a peek at were really high quality and intruiguing. You should do the same.


Mario Wagner @Hashimoto

Mario Wagner (Berkeley) opened his new solo show A Glow that Transfers Creativity last Saturday night at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco.


Serge Gay Jr. @Spoke Art

The paintings in the show are each influenced by a musician, ranging from Freddy Mercury, to Madonna, to A Tribe Called Quest and they are so stylistically consistent with each musician's persona that they read as a cohesive body of work with incredible variation. If you told me they were each painted by a different person, I would not hesitate to believe you and it's really great to see a solo show with so much variety. The show is fun, poppy, very well done, and absolutely worth a look and maybe even a listen.


NYCHOS Mural on Ashbury and Haight

NYCHOS completed this great new mural on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco on Tuesday. Looks Amazing.


Sun Milk in Vienna

With rising rent in SF and knowing mostly other young artists without capitol, I desired a way to live rent free, have a space to do my craft, and get to see more of the world. Inspired by the many historical artists who have longed similar longings I discovered the beauty of artist residencies. Lilo runs Adhoc Collective in Vienna which not only has a fully equipped artists creative studio, but an indoor halfpipe, and private artist quarters. It was like a modern day castle or skate cathedral. It exists in almost a utopic state, totally free to those that apply and come with a real passion for both art and skateboarding


"How To Lose Yourself Completely" by Bryan Schnelle

I just wanted to share with you a piece I recently finished which took me 4 years to complete. Titled "How To Lose Yourself Completely (The September Issue)", it consists of a copy of the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine (the issue they made the documentary about) with all faces masked with a sharpie, and everything else entirely whited out. 840 pages of fun. -Bryan Schnelle


Tyler Bewley ~ Recent Works

Some great work from San Francisco based Tyler Bewley.


Kirk Maxson and Alexis Mackenzie at Eleanor Harwood Gallery

While walking our way across San Francisco on Saturday we swung through the opening receptions for Kirk Maxson and Alexis Mackenzie at Eleanor Harwood Gallery in the Mission.


Jeremy Fish Solo Show in Los Angeles

Jeremy Fish opens Hunting Trophies tonight, Saturday April 5th, at the Los Angeles based Mark Moore Gallery. The show features new work from Fish inside the "hunting lodge" where viewers climb inside the head of the hunter and explore the history of all the animals he's killed.


The Albatross and the Shipping Container

Beautiful piece entitled "The Albatross and the Shipping Container", Ink on Paper, Mounted to Panel, 47" Diameter, by San Francisco based Martin Machado now on display at FFDG. Stop in Saturday (1-6pm) to view the group show "Salt the Skies" now running through April 19th. 2277 Mission St. at 19th.


The Marsh Barge - Traveling the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to quit my job, move out of my house, leave everything and travel again. So on August 21, 2013 I pushed a canoe packed full of gear into the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, along with four of my best friends. Exactly 100 days later, I arrived at a marina near the Gulf of Mexico in a sailboat.


Flavio Samelo's Downtown Sao Paulo Murals

Our buddy Flavio Samelo down there in Brazil does all kinds of great work including this recent mural project in downtown Sao Paulo in front of one of the most important modern buildings of Oscar Niemeyer from the 60's, THE COPAN.


John Trippe, FFDG and Fecalface.com Founder, Stepping Down From Daily Operations

John Trippe, founder, owner and curator of FecalFace.com and the Mission District art gallery FFDG, announced today that he will stepping down from daily operations of the two ventures to seek new career opportunities.


High 5s - Get Your Feet Wet

I purchased one of the first digital cameras when Fecal Face went online in 2000. It was a massive Kodak with 2 mega pixels


"Touching Base" by Schuyler Beecroft

San Francisco based Schuyler Beecroft emailed over the great new series of paintings he's completed entitled "Touching Base", 16x20in on mounted wood panel. Like them.


Flume - Space Cadet (ft. Ghostface Killah & Autre Ne Veut)

Buddies Jay Howell & Jim Dirschberger did this great video produced by Forest City Rockers.


Fire Shelter for Papay Gyro Nights 2014

Last year we posted photos from another one of Simon Hjermind Jensen's Fire Shelters he's made in Copenhagen. This time around the Copenhagen based artist/ designer created one for the Papay Gyro Nights 2014 way up in on the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland.


"Portrait of a Slugger 19" by Hiro Kurata

Beautiful painting by NYC based Hiro Kurata now on display at SF's FFDG through April 19th as part of the group show "Salt the Skies".


"Veins of Octulen" by Curiot at FFDG

"Salt the Skies" opened on the 21st at FFDG and features this great piece by Mexico City based Curiot (Favio Martinez) whose sold out 2013 show Age of Omuktlans ran at FFDG. His forthcoming solo show is slated for March 2015.


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