Photographers looking for inspiration in order to enter images into the new culture category in the 2010 Red Bull Illume Image Quest should look no further than American Martha Cooper.
Most famous for her work in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cooper has documented people and their lifestyles for decades.
She was heavily involved in shooting b-boying and early rap pioneers as the movements emerged from New York’s underground. One of her pictures appears on the cover of the Wild Style LP, the groundbreaking soundtrack to the first ever hip-hop movie.
Since that period, she has been an avid supporter of the b-boy and b-girl communities, attending every Red Bull BC One final, including mid-November 2009’s New York event.
Born in Baltimore in the 1940s her interest in photography stemmed from her father’s camera shop and at the age of 19, after studying art and anthropology at college, she decided to pursue a career in the industry.
Trips to Thailand as a volunteer in the Peace Corps and as a photography intern for National Geographic magazine followed, and by 1977 she was a staff photographer at the New York Post.
It was during this period that she became drawn to graffiti art and subsequently break dancing and hip-hip. Her interest led to a collaboration on a book with Henry Chalfont called Subway Art.
Cooper and Chalfont were among the first to document graffiti and present it as an art form as opposed to the common perception of it being mindless vandalism.
“I was out on the street shooting every day and would bring my film back to the paper at the end of my shift, unless there was a breaking news assignment,” says Cooper. “The Post was located at the foot of Manhattan so I used to drive through Alphabet City on the Lower Eastside looking for feature shots to use up the leftover film in my camera.
“I began a project taking pictures of kids doing creative things on their own, like building a fort or making a go-cart. One day a boy showed me his notebook and explained that he was designing his name to write on a wall.
“That was the first time I understood that the graffiti everywhere was actually kids' nicknames. When I expressed interest, the boy offered to introduce me to a ‘king’ who turned out to be Dondi, one of the most respected writers to this day.
“The more I learned about the intricacies of graffiti writing, the more fascinated I became.”
“The shoot with Dondi in the yards was difficult, memorable, and illegal. I feel that the photo of him (which appears on the book cover) braced between two cars while painting, captures the essence of graffiti writing: exciting, absorbing and dangerous.”
Although not so much involved in the graffiti scene nowadays (“it has been investigated to death”), Cooper is as interested as ever in photographing people and cultural phenomena, especially breaking.
Along with author Niki Kramer, Cooper released We B*Girlz in 2005, a book following female breakers entering competitions in Germany in the early 2000s.
In 2004 she published the acclaimed Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979-1984, a fascinating look at the roots of one of music’s biggest earning genres.
“I'm working on four book projects at the moment. The first is a small book called Tag Town about graffiti tags on the small "Hello My Name Is" stickers.
“The second is a book called Remembering 9/11 about the spontaneous memorials that were put on the street after 9/11.
“Kodakgirl is my collection of vintage images of women and cameras and fourth is a book on Japanese tattooing with photos I took when I lived in Japan in 1970.”
Martha Cooper’s books are all available via Amazon, and she keeps a regular blog at www.12ozprophet.com.
The Red Bull Illume Culture category:
Images that visually capture the creativity of the culture, music and lifestyle that surrounds action and freesports, or represents what happens before, between, and after the action.