MARTHA COOPER INTERVIEW
©2001, 2003 @149st Do not republish without permission.
Why did you start to photograph subway graffiti?
I was shooting a series of photos on unsupervised children's play. The pictures included things the kids had made such as go carts, stilts, airplanes, forts, and pigeon cages. One day a young writer, HE3, asked, "Why don't you take pictures of graffiti?" He showed me his notebook full of HE3 sketches and a wall he had painted. When I realized that he was designing his graffiti, I was hooked!
For many professional photographers, commitment to documenting graffiti was short term. Was there a particular aspect of the culture or the artwork itself that prompted your enduring commitment?
I have degrees in art and anthropology. Subway graffiti perfectly combined both of these interests. The art was very photogenic to say the least and it seemed that not many people were paying attention. The difficulty of capturing the elusive trains on film added to my pleasure in getting a good shot. I'm sure wildlife photographers feel the same way.
You left the safety of subway platforms and ventured into high crime areas, train yards and lay-ups to photograph subway graffiti. Did you draw upon your past experience as a photojournalist in braving these elements?
I felt that the photographs I was getting were interesting enough to justify the risks I was taking. The photojournalism experience helped but also I had many years of offbeat worldwide travel experience to draw on. I tried to be sensible in my risk taking. For example, I wouldn't carry too much expensive camera equipment into a high crime area.
What were your experiences in the yards and tunnels like?
Actually I had only good experiences in the yards. I always felt reasonably safe with the writers who took me in and luckily we never had any problems. The yards at night are an eerie world with all kinds of spooky train sights and sounds. It was exciting to experience them and I am deeply grateful to those who gave me the chance.
At the time you were photographing the subways did you have a sense of of the importance of documenting the art?
I couldn't understand why, in a city which prided itself as being the art capital of the world, New Yorkers were so antagonistic to what seemed to me to be an amazing form of artistic expression. I felt lucky to have moved to New York City in the 70's when all this was happening. I personally felt it was important to document the trains as an ephemeral art form but I never thought so many other people would also think so.
Has the global expansion of aerosol art taken you by surprise?
Completely. I never predicted that graffiti would spread around the world. I thought that the particular conditions favorable to graffiti writing such as vacant lots, burned out buildings, and unguarded train yards wouldn't exist elsewhere and that therefore graffiti would be limited to a time and place. Who could predict that there could be graffiti in a tidy country like Germany?
Any closing words on aerosol art or artists?
I would just like to express my thanks to the many writers who helped me with my photography back in the day and to those who have gone out of their way to tell me how much they've enjoyed my photos and Henry Chalfant's in Subway Art.
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