Martha Cooper is an American documentary photographer born in the 1940s in Baltimore, Maryland. She began photographing in nursery school after her father gave her a camera. She graduated from high school at the age of 16, and earned an art degree at age 19 from Grinnell College. She taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, journeyed by motorcycle from Bangkok to London and received an ethnology diploma from Oxford.
Martha is perhaps best known for documenting the New York graffiti scene of the late 1970s and early 80s. While working as a staff photographer on the New York Post she began taking photos of creative play on the Lower Eastside in order to use up remaining film at the end of the day before she developed it. One day she met a young kid named Edwin who showed her his drawings and explained that he was practicing to write his nickname on walls. Edwin offered to introduce her to a graffiti king. This is how she met the stylemaster Dondi, who eventually allowed her to photograph him in the yards at night while he was painting. In 1984, with Henry Chalfant, she published Subway Art, a landmark photo book that subsequently spread graffiti art around the world.
We are fortunate to have Martha Cooper discuss her contribution to “Delayed Gratification” and her vision of art in the Digital Age.
Which work will you be exhibiting? Why did you select this piece?
I'll be exhibiting a black and white photo from the late '70's of guys sun bathing on the remains of a broken down pier in the East River. This picture is an example of a persistent theme in my photos: creative strategies for surviving urban decay.
What is your charity or cause? Why did you select this? Where does community work fit in with your ethos as an artist?
Viva House, a soup kitchen in Southwest Baltimore. I've been documenting a Baltimore neighborhood called SoWeBo for the last 4 1/2 years. It's one of the poorest in the nation rife with drugs and guns with vast blocks of abandoned, boarded up buildings. I've tried to become a community photographer. I shoot family photos and give them to the people in them who are really appreciative. Viva House has been providing food and other services in SoWeBo for over 40 years. I know they will make good use of any money they receive from this project.
“Delayed Gratification” reveals the power of patience, of the change that takes place when reward is not the goal but a byproduct of success. Please talk about your ideas of Delayed Gratification. What do these words mean to you?
For over 40 years my photography has been about subjects that fascinated me but were not of wide interest. As Hip-Hop and graffiti have gone global, there's recently been a surprising amount of interest in my work. Unexpected success at the end of one's career is a fine form of delayed gratification.
Edition One Hundred is founded with the idea of providing artists the opportunity to transform new technology into a tool to both produce affordable art while simultaneously connecting to non-traditional art collectors. What are your thoughts on Edition One Hundred?
Affordable art is always a good idea.
Why did you decide to be involved? How do you see this as a platform to reach a broader audience for your work?
This seemed like a win-win-win-win situation—possible money for me, for a charity, and for Edition One Hundred as well as a chance to get one of my lesser known photos out into the world.
What are your thoughts on Art in the Digital Age?
Everyone's an artist or a photographer now with a bewildering array of new technology available. The bar has been raised. It's tougher to make a living. I'm happy that I lived and worked in the transitional era from film to digital and was able to experience both.
As an artist, you regularly produce work that is a manifestation of your distinctive vision. Yet at the same time you are influenced by the work of others. Do you collect art? If so, who do you collect? And if you had all the money in the world, who would you buy and why?
For starters, I think of myself as a photographer, not an artist. I do collect art but rarely buy expensive art. I like to have a personal association with the artist or the art and most of the art that's displayed around my apartment I've found on the street, at flea markets, in my travels to far-flung places, or received as a gift from the artist. For me, acquiring art is a quest. Having all the money in the world would negate the process.
Why should people buy art?
There are many reasons to buy art but it's not necessarily something that everyone should do. I would hope that people who buy art buy work that they enjoy looking at rather than thinking of it as an investment. On the other hand, since I'm now selling prints, I'm happy that there's an investment market in photography.
Edition One Hundred is curated, limited edition art available in editions of 100, priced at $100.00. Prints are hand-signed and numbered by the artists in a size and/or print exclusive to Edition One Hundred. More here.