PHOTO: From Soweto to Sowebo: A New Chapter for Martha Cooper

Martha Cooper instinctively captures defining moments in history as a documentary photographer, author and ethnographer who takes a real interest in her subjects. With camera in hand and an intuitive eye, she introduced the world to New York City’s burgeoning graffiti movement, downtown art scene and Hip Hop culture more than 30 years ago. She continues to set the definitive tone documenting contemporary street art across the globe and in her own backyard, literally. I’m excited to share some photos from the Baltimore native’s recent “Soweto/Sowebo” project, which she talks about in the following Q&A with Tania Fuentez Media.

NOTE: “Soweto/Sowebo” photos courtesy of Martha Cooper.

IN HER OWN WORDS: “The first question people usually ask me is, ‘What made you photograph Hip Hop?’ My answer is that the words “Hip Hop” were not even in use in the late 70s when I began this project. From 1977 to 1980, I was a staff photographer for the New York Post. One day I discovered a boy who showed me drawings of his nickname that he painted on walls. After I saw that these kids were more graphic designers than vandals, I became hooked on graffiti. My idea while documenting subway graffiti was to attempt to show the paintings within the context of the culture that created them.” _ Artist statement, ‘Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979-1984′

TFM: You’ve experienced Hip Hop culture since its infancy in New York City in a way few could imagine _ watching it evolve from a distance yet intimate perspective. What have you learned on the path?

MC: I have learned to have confidence in my instincts about what’s interesting and important to photograph. For example, when I first discovered B-Boying in 1981, nobody was interested.


TFM: Describe your art in three words. Do you feel comfortable knowing there’s a body of work now considered part of an iconic legacy?

MC: I actually don’t think of myself as an artist _ more a documenter. Three words? 1. Straightforward (I don’t like to shoot from unusual angles) 2. Literal (more about specific subject matter than about unusual light or techniques) 3. Upbeat (I like to shoot people being creative even under difficult circumstances). Yes, I feel very happy that I’ve been able to make a living doing something that I love and that it has had a positive impact on a lot of people.

TFM: You’ve shot some of the most revered graffiti artists of all time. Did you ever have the urge to pick up a spray can instead of the camera?



MC: Not really although I have attempted a tag now and then.

TFM: What are you inspired by right now? What are you working on currently?

MC: I’ve been documenting a neighborhood in Baltimore called Sowebo (Southwest Baltimore) since 2006. In September, I went to Soweto in South Africa and found some intriguing similarities. Now I want to do a Sowebo/Soweto project.

TFM: It’s approaching the 30th anniversary of Subway Art. What was it like collaborating with Henry Chalfant on what’s considered the “Bible” by graffiti writers? Have you stayed in touch with a lot of the subjects? How about We B*Girlz (text by Nika Kramer) and its significance?


MC: Henry and I had no idea that Subway Art would reach such a wide audience over such a long time. We just wanted to get a little book published because we thought graffiti would disappear. I do see quite a lot of writers from back in the day because there are so many graffiti/street art events. Our We B*Girlz book wasn’t very successful, however, it did connect a lot of women from around the world to each other and because of that more women’s voices are being heard in the world of Hip Hop and graff.

TFM: Patti Astor has a new memoir featuring photos you took capturing a seminal period in NYC art culture, especially the downtown scene. Any memories during that time still stand out?

MC: The memory of Patti herself in the Fun Gallery stands out!


Martha Cooper’s “Soweto/Sowebo” project:

Martha Cooper blog on 12ozProphet:

Martha Cooper’s New York City Snaps:

NY Times article:


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