Selina Miles’ documentary Martha: A Picture Story chronicles the career of iconic street art photographer Martha Cooper. Below, photographer and frequent ELLE collaborator Zoey Grossman talks to Cooper about capturing graffiti around the world, how Instagram changed the medium, and overcoming fear.
Martha, I feel so honored to have the chance to speak with you! I admire your work so much and feel lucky to be able to ask you questions about your process and views. I know that sounds trite, but I really mean that. One of the things I respond to in your work and your story is your ability to just go for it. I’ve lived so much of my life in fear and hesitation that when I see you and your work, I yearn to have that same thing: your fearlessness, your self-confidence and determination in your vision. I really found your documentary moving and inspiring. There is so much freedom to how you approach your work, and I respect and admire the body of work you’ve created. How do you feel about watching your life story come together as a feature? How do you feel about the way your story has been told?
Selina did a wonderful job piecing together disparate sections of my life. I’m critical of things like how I look or sound so it embarrasses me a bit to watch. I hope young photographers and artists will enjoy the doc and find it inspiring.
I want to go back a little bit. What would you say are a few things from your childhood that shaped your views of photography and your art?
My dad, Ben, was an amateur photographer and owned a family camera shop with my uncle Harry. He gave me a little Brownie camera when I was in nursery school and used to take me on outings he called “camera runs,” often with the Baltimore Camera Club. My feminist mom was a high school English and journalism teacher so I combined their skills and gravitated toward shooting editorially.
Before I found my love and passion for photography, I was a painter and I studied art history. Was—or is—there any other art form that you ever explored?
I majored in art at Grinnell College. The program combined studio work and art history but no photography. I tried out various mediums but wasn't particularly good in any of them. I was able to convince the faculty to let me do a two-credit independent project in photography.
I have always struggled with being very shy and introverted, so for me, photographing people has brought up a lot of fears and insecurities that I’ve had to overcome. What are some obstacles or insecurities you have had to overcome in your work?
The decision to move to New York was the most difficult. I was married at the time and living in Rhode Island, shooting for a weekly newspaper, the Narragansett Times. In 1975, New York City was the center of magazine photography and I didn't see how I could ever get into the game without being physically in the city and showing my portfolio in person, although I had only been to Manhattan once or twice. This was pre-internet of course, and I tried commuting back and forth to Rhode Island but eventually moved to the city permanently. The marriage broke up but I don’t regret my decision. I did not want to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have been.
You seem very fearless with your work—Both emotionally and physically; in the documentary you have to go to places where you are alone, where safety can be an issue. Have you always been quite fearless in that way or was that something you found with time?
I've always been pretty independent. From 1963-65 I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. At the end of my assignment, I bought a motorcycle and drove it 16,000 miles across Asia to Europe. I was 22 at the time. That trip was good preparation for a career as a photographer in New York City.
I read somewhere that you don’t scare easily. What scares you?
Not getting the shot.
Something I really admire about you is your fearlessness and ability to just “go for it” when it comes to getting the shot you want. Was there ever a time, doing the kind of work you do, that you felt nervous or timid? If so, how did you overcome that?
I’ve had plenty of assignments where I felt things weren’t going well. There are so many ways you can screw up while shooting—especially with film. There can be all kinds of problems with the light, the equipment or establishing rapport with a difficult subject. If there’s no chance to come back for a reshoot, then the only thing is to keep going and doing the best you can whatever the circumstances.
You are a true trailblazer and a leader with the kind of work you do. Did you ever have a mentor or someone’s work who you admired and looked to for inspiration?
Susan Welchman was the photo editor who hired me at the New York Post in 1977. I would say she was the closest person in my life whom I could call a mentor, other than my supportive parents. She made sure I got good assignments and then promoted my photos to the Post editors and tried hard to see that they used them well. We continue to be very good friends today. She now lives in Maine but as soon as she gets her second COVID shot, she will visit me in NY.
I'm a big fan of the wonderful photographer Jill Freedman, who sadly died this year. Her book Circus Days introduced me to the idea of working on a long-term personal documentary project.
As a fashion photographer, my work revolves around schedules, many moving parts, a lot of loud voices, collaboration, sometimes drama, and planning. With the kind of work you do, how would you describe the challenges and rewards that come from working with your subjects? How would you describe the shift from news-focused assignments to choosing your own subjects?
Probably most photographers would agree that trying to get an assignment is usually more difficult and time-consuming than actually shooting it. I spent an inordinate amount of time writing proposals, trying to contact editors and pitching stories, often for magazine for which I wasn’t particularly qualified. In the few cases when I was successful, my photos were pretty ordinary. Looking back I can understand why I wasn't the right person for some jobs.
I take special pleasure that today I am recognized for work that I shot on my own initiative, often after the subject was repeatedly rejected by numerous magazines.
How do you know when you have the shot you want?
I often have a preconceived idea of the shot I want but when I arrive at the location find that it’s impossible to get. Maybe a car is in the way or I can’t get the height I need or the light is all wrong. Sometimes when editing you realize there was an interesting angle that you missed. I try various angles to at least have options—verticals, horizontals, wide, close, etc. At least now we don’t have to wait a couple of days to see what we have. I may not always get the shot I want but I think this is what keeps photographers going—an unending quest for the perfect shot.
Do you ever second guess yourself as you’re shooting?
Yes, especially when I’m on assignment and trying to shoot photos through the client’s eyes. When I’m shooting for myself, I pretty much know what I want and go after it.
Your photos have such heart and soul in them. When I look at them I feel like I’m almost a voyeur in a slice of life that makes me feel as if I’m a part of it. When you’re finding the moment within the environment you’re shooting in, do you always go up and ask the people you’re photographing if you can take their photo, or do you try and blend in?
It depends on the situation. Often if you ask first, you destroy the moment you’re trying to capture. My preference is to be a fly on the wall. From 2006-2016 I documented a difficult neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore. Drugs and violence were everyday life. You could get shot for taking a shot. I decided that I would walk around with my cameras completely exposed so as not to look as if I were sneaking photos. Of course this was an invitation to potential muggers.
I usually didn’t ask first but I often chatted to the people I was photographing afterwards so I could give them prints. I made thousands of prints on the Adorama website Printique and always tried to get them back to the people in them. I promised myself that if anyone tried to rob me that I would just hand over the cameras. But happily, that never had to happen. I felt getting the photos was worth the risk which is maybe how war photographers feel. I made about 200 trips to Baltimore from 2006-2016. Since I was working in a ten block radius, people recognized me and eventually I became known as the “Picture Lady.” I like to shoot ongoing activities where the subjects are concentrating on what they’re doing and not paying attention to me. This applies to shooting street artists painting as well. I prefer not to direct the subject. Selina came to Baltimore, which is my hometown, with me to film twice, and I'm really happy Baltimore is in the doc.
Talk to me a little bit about the technical side of your process when you shoot. I imagine you have to grab that moment quickly, so are you thinking about technicality—shutter stop, aperture, light quality?
Digital is so much easier than analog because there are so many things like ISO or color temperature that can be adjusted in camera or post production. Can you believe I used to use a color temperature meter and filters for indoor shoots? If I’m moving around quickly, I’ll usually shoot on shutter priority which might mean a higher ISO if I want to shoot at 500th of a sec for example. If I’m stationary I’ll shoot on manual to give me more flexibility to tweak exposure without changing anything else. I use fill-in flash a lot on manual to open up the shadows, bounced off of walls if available. I try to make it not look “flashy.” I’ve spent so many years balancing f-stops, shutter speed and ISO that it’s all pretty second nature to me. I’m pretty much always aware of whatever I’ve set and make changes regularly, largely because we can now see what we’re getting immediately.
Being as objective as you can, how have you seen your work grow and evolve over time? Has social media played a part in this in any way?
I actually feel that my work has pretty much remained the same over 60 years or so. I shoot the way I always have shot since high school, framing photos more or less in the same way. I’m a very literal documenter so I always want to be able to see clearly whatever it is that I’m shooting. I don't employ dramatic lighting or angles—just straight on documentation as historic preservation to show, this is what it looked like. I enjoy Instagram because it enables me to become my own publisher, giving me complete control. I can decide which photo to post, edit it, and write the caption. For someone from the analog era, this is very powerful.
As a female photographer at that time, were there other women in positions of power in your field that were supportive and encouraging? Or did you feel there was a sense of competition?
See [the question about] Susan Welchman. There have always been a lot of powerful women in the editorial field, probably because pay is low. I shot many jobs for all kinds of educational publishers and usually worked with supportive women. For a couple examples: I shot “corporate candids” with Marianne Barcellona, who had worked for People magazine and a lot of events of all kinds for Karin Bacon Events. These women were totally supporting and encouraging and are still good friends.
I know this is a big question, But what are the biggest ways you have seen photography change over the time that you started up until now?
Film photography is a rarified skill requiring expensive equipment and in-depth knowledge of how to use it. Digital photography is something that can easily be done with an iPhone. I would say that digital photography leveled the playing field, allowing anyone to enter. It exponentially increased the competition to succeed as a career photographer while drastically lowering the fees for image licensing.
There has been a real shift recently with women getting more opportunities within the photography community: magazines, advertising, etc. Something that stood out to me in the documentary was when you said there wasn’t really a place for women in our industry at that time. How do you feel about the recent shift?
The more women the better! Go girls!
Do you have a favorite photograph of yours that you’ve taken? If so, can you describe the photo to me in your own words, and why you love it?
I guess my very favorite of favorites is the photo of Dondi White straddling two subway cars in New Lots yard in Brooklyn as he paints a top-to-bottom whole car with his name and a Dondi cartoon character. It took about a year of my documenting graffiti for Dondi to trust taking me into the yard with him. I was sincerely curious about how the trains were painted and determined to photograph the process. I was in the yard all night and Dondi didn’t want me to use flash. I always shot with Kodachrome 64 with ISO 64, not ideal for this situation. As daylight dawned, a bit of light struck Dondi’s face and I caught it. I love the photo because I think it shows the intensity of the experience of painting graffiti and because the lighting, exposure, and framing are exactly what I wanted. This photo required employing all my expertise as a photographer under unusually difficult circumstances and is today probably the most iconic graffiti shot
What is something you’ve never gotten the chance to photograph that you would love to?
Banksy at work.
Tell us something that some people may not know about you.
I'm an avid collector of vintage images of women with cameras. Many are on my collector's website.
I think something that seems like a cultural shift, expedited by technology and connectivity, is the need for “more more more.” The idea that everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket seems to flood all of us with constant images. How do you feel about the effects of this on photography?
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m happy that photography is pretty much available to anyone. Family photos are important and now everyone can take them and share them. On the other hand, the proliferation of easily available photos has made it harder to make a living as a photographer.
In the world we live in today, mothing ever seems to be enough in the context of “success.” How do you view the idea of “success” and “failure” within your work experience?
I’ve thought about that a lot during the pandemic. I tend to work towards specific goals, big and small. This helps me know what to do when I get up in the morning. But I have not been successful in meeting all of them. My biggest lifetime goal was to have a career as a photographer and support myself. That worked out. There's no point dwelling on the failures and disappointments.
Have you come across any interesting female street artists that you’d like to put a spotlight on?
There are so many, I hate to just name a few. I have been to a number of all-women street art or graffiti festivals. For starters, I’ll say the world lost one of our most wonderful female street artists this year. Hyuro painted huge walls in a spare style with a subdued palette and a feminist sensibility. I want people to know her work.
Lady Aiko, Faith 47, Maya Hayuk, Hueman and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh are among the many women producing interesting work. The great Lady Pink has been painting since the early 1980s. One of my last trips pre-pandemic was to Lima, Peru, where I met the talented Mekilu, who is equally skilled at letter graffiti and street art. We share a love of cats and Pokémon Go.
When do you feel the happiest with your work?
When I see that I actually got an interesting shot.
I just want to end by saying that all the images you’ve taken, and even this documentary, will live on and continue to be something that people, including aspiring photographers, will discover for many years to come. Is there any advice or wisdom you can share with anyone chasing their dream in this medium?
Thanks for that thought! Follow your own path and don't give up.
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