Martha Cooper's 'Sowebo/Soweto' show at 788 Gallery collects photos from Baltimore and South Africa

City Paper

The people in Sowebo, where Martha Cooper owns a house and has been shooting pictures for the last decade, don’t know about her status as a street photography legend, and she likes it that way.

Cooper’s work in Sowebo, which is on display with photos she took in Soweto, South Africa at Gallery 788 through Feb. 28, is her attempt to get back to the  sense of a creative frontier that she felt when running along the tracks with graf kids.

Martha Cooper spent the 1970s photographing graffiti artists in New York as they made their midnight runs. She couldn’t find anyone to publish the photos until she and Henry Chalfant collaborated on the now-seminal 1984 book on the early graffiti scene, “Subway Art.”

“She would go up in the South Bronx, get ghetto kids doing ghetto shit and now all those photos are Smithsonian,” says Clarence Robbs, a Baltimorean whose tag “Cuba” has been credited as the first  to dominate this city with that infectious New York style in the early 1980s. “Can you imagine what it was like hopping out upper-story windows after these guys in this area back then?” Robbs says. “She had guts. You got to figure she could get jumped. Just look up her shit and you can see what she was going on.”

As a result of those photos, and her fierce commitment to a form that wasn’t even regarded as art at the time, Cooper is a legend. When she turned 70, the who’s who of New York graffiti did a Happy Birthday wall to “Marty” on Houston Street and the Bowery, which was one of seminal hot spots of the public art space battles in those early days. Gallerists and dealers love her because her presence gives a show instant credibility. In Sowebo, the creative vibe is much more ethereal.

Martha Cooper matched up photos from trips to South African township Soweto with those from Sowebo, where she owns a house. (Martha Cooper)

“I’ve never been able to find something like those early days of graffiti,” she says. “I was looking for something with that same mystery, something that hadn’t been discovered.”

Before she discovered Sowebo, Cooper was traveling around the world, shooting B-girls and break dancing troupes. In 1946, her father founded Cooper’s Camera Mart, a beloved camera shop in Hamilton, so when he and her mother died,  Cooper wanted to find some way to honor them. She had inherited some money and asked herself where in the world she really wanted to go and the answer was obviously Southwest Baltimore.

She chose well. Sowebo holds a place of misfit distinction in this city of neighborhoods. It is close to the sports complex and the growing biotech park of University of Maryland. And yet it is still as raw as nearly any other neighborhood in the city. The history leeches out from the B&O Warehouse, the pioneering company that created the nation’s first boat-to-rail connection. The rowhouses huddle together, a low-slung mix of woodworked store fronts and small churches and a few gems of 19th-century bank buildings. To the north lies the still-regal Union Square where H.L. Mencken lived most of his life. Unlike the east side where the marble step fronts seem exposed to the elements, on the west side the coziness seems a bit more shaded and street life thrives as a result. And the four crab houses set up along Monroe Street were among the first things that drew Cooper to Southwest Baltimore.

“In the age of McDonald’s, to see little kids devouring crabs is quite special,” she says. “You would never find that in New York. There is so much that goes on the sidewalks in Sowebo.”

Gallerists and art dealers love Cooper because her presence gives a show instant credibility. (Martha Cooper)

The fact that Sowebo was supposed to be an arts neighborhood like Hampden became had little bearing on her work. She supports the Sowebo festival, but it’s not her primary focus on the neighborhood. Instead, on the Fourth of July she took to the streets to capture an impromptu fireworks celebration, smoke spewing from cans the size of tennis-ball canisters.

“It’s too easy to go into a poor neighborhood and start picking on them and take pictures of these things that are shocking,” she said. “I wanted any shock value to be that there are all these upbeat things, rather than let’s look at all these abandoned buildings.”

One of the most powerful photos features a group of kids hanging around the stoop, both black and white. One kid holds a magazine open like he’s showing off a comic book, but photos of handguns flash from the page. His face looks as if it just suddenly grew hard, as if he was trying to show something to the photographer.

Though she doesn’t live there full time, she’s made nearly 200 trips down from New York over the past few years to take pictures. “I just decided to shoot everything. Not  just the best picture,” she says. “When I was in the Bronx shooting [graffiti in the ’70s], every time I pushed the shutter it was 50 cents. I regret that now. I saw many things I didn’t shoot because I didn’t want to spend the money.”

Cooper has a reputation for being fearless, but she doesn’t hide the fact that she can feel afraid as she walks the streets alone with her gear in plain view, putting her nose where it doesn’t belong. “I would just hand it over,” she says. But that’s never happened. Instead she takes pictures of the neighborhood’s inhabitants and then, after she processes them, carries them around with her on the street, handing them out to the subjects, becoming entwined with their lives in the process. As they stop to thank her, the details of their lives start to come out. These stories keep her out on the street, always ready to look around another corner. “I don’t want anybody to accuse me of slumming, or voyeurism,” she says.

“The proof of how much she cares is very identifiable in those photos,” said Elaine Eff, a Baltimore-based folklorist, known for her work documenting the area’s screen painters. “She’s not a one-shot Sally. She’s out there and comes back over and over again.”

(Martha Cooper)

Cooper’s photos occupy a world not far from the streets that David Simon documented in “The Corner,” but Cooper offers a different look at street life in the Southwestern part of the city. If Simon chose to hang with low-level drug workers on the corner, Cooper opted to follow the old dude with tinsel in his spokes and speakers on the back of the bike.

“She’s not out there documenting gangsters but documenting the creative expressions of  people in that environment, which is dangerous,” says Steve Zeitlin, founding director of City Lore, New York’s cultural heritage center, which considers Cooper its staff photographer for life.

“The pictures themselves were so specific about the urban landscape and street play,” adds Varick Chittenden, a retired folklorist who hired Cooper for an ongoing 20-year project in the Adirondacks of all places. “Her world view is a combination of that of a great photographer and an anthropologist. She has studied anthropology.” (In fact,  Cooper earned a degree in ethnology from Oxford University in 1966.)

This anthropological approach is also evident in the second part of her show at Hampden’s Gallery 788 through Feb. 28, which features photographs she took in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa. She was invited to be the photographer for a street art project in Johannesburg, and when she visited Soweto, she realized the similarities between the South African township and her Baltimore neighborhood and returned for two more trips. The show features two images of two patched-up cars with mismatching black and white fenders. Though they look like they could have come from the same junkyard, she shot the pictures thousands of miles apart. “That was luck,” she says. “Since then I have taken every mismatched [car] and none of them look at good as that one.” 


“Sowebo/Soweto” is on display at Gallery 788 through Feb 28.

See our gallery of Cooper's work HERE.

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