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StreetPlay – Martha Cooper

15 September 2005 No Comment

Martha Cooper has the reputation of being the first and foremost photographer of emerging Hip Hop culture in New York City. However, the Hip Hop culture is just one of Cooper’s many photographic fortes. From 1977 to 1980, Martha Cooper was a staff photographer on the New York Post. She worked out of her car, driving to assignments around the city’s five boroughs. Always on the lookout for interesting “weather” shots, Martha habitually drove through the Lower East Side of Manhattan on her way back to the Post at the end of the day to develop her film…

The city’s poorer neighborhoods had the richest street life and her favorite location was Alphabet City, north of Houston Street between Avenue A and D. In the 70’s the area was undergoing extensive urban renewal, a process still continuing some twenty-five years later. At the time the neighborhood had more than its share of drug dealers and petty criminals. 

To an adult’s eye, the landscape was ugly and forbidding, but to a child the abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn lots made perfect playgrounds, providing raw materials and open space for improvised play. A crumbling tenement housed a secret clubhouse, a rooftop became a private aviary, and a pile of trash might be a source for treasure.

The photos in Street Play show the creative and indomitable spirit of city kids determined to make the best of their inhospitable environment. More than twenty-five years later these photos also stand as a testament to a transitional post-tenement and pre-artist time on the Lower Eastside. Today the neighborhood is transformed—but where are the go-carts and skelly caps?

“Marty’s curiosity and insight about cultures worldwide have made us all want photographs that teach as well as entertain. Without her unique photographic collection, this culture might have been ignored, overlooked, or misunderstood.”
—Susan Welchman, National Geographic

MARTHA COOPER is a documentary photographer specialized in shooting urban vernacular art and architecture for over twenty-five years. From 1977-1980 she worked as a staff photographer for the New York Post, leaving in 1980 in order to spend more time photographing subway graffiti and breaking. In 1984, in collaboration with Henry Chalfant, she published SUBWAY ART (Thames and Hudson/Henry Holt), The classic book showcases the best painted trains of the era and is often referred to as “The Bible” by graffiti aficionados. In 1990, she published R.I.P.: MEMORIAL WALL ART (Thames and Hudson/Henry Holt), with folklorist Joseph Sciorra. November 2004, marked the debut of critically acclaimed title, Martha Cooper’s HIP HOP FILES: Photographs 1979-1984. Presently, Martha is the Director of Photography at City Lore, the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture.

CARLOS RODRIGUEZ aka MARE 139 is a veteran of the golden years of New York City subway painting; he painted along side many of the Style Masters of his generation (circa 1976), the likes of Kel 1st, Crash, Dondi and others. In collaboration with this company he has developed a special insight into the artistic quality and cultural value of Graffiti style writing. Over the past 20 years he has transcended the stereotype of the art form by creating innovative sculpture works that echo back to the origins of style writing on trains and reach out into the realm of dynamic modern sculpture. He designed the Annual BET Award sculpture, which has been received by Musical Artist, Athletes and Actors such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, JayZ, Snoop Dog, Beyonce, Kobe Bryant, Usher, Serena Williams and others. His sculpture works are also in the collections of Fashion entrepreneur Marc Ecko and Actor Robert DeNiro. In addition to the sculptures, Mare 139 was an Associate Producer on the highly acclaimed 2002 DVD re-release of Style Wars the classic Hip Hop documentary filmed in NYC 1982. 

Photographs by MARTHA COOPER
Introduction by MARE 139 (Carlos Rodriguez)

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