Martha Cooper: A Reluctant Icon

May 20, 2019 | 3 books mentioned 6 min read

1.
This year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured a new category called “This Used to Be New York.” One of the category’s three entries was the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles’s debut feature-length documentary, Martha: A Picture Story, about the renowned street photographer Martha Cooper. As I settled into the screening room, I was feeling anticipation tinged with dread. The anticipation came from my unquenchable hunger to time-travel back to the bunged-up, brawling, beautiful New York City of my youth; the dread came from my fear that this movie was going to be another work of misty-eyed nostalgia. The category title “This Used to Be New York” was the first red flag, and the description of the movie in the festival catalog was the clincher. It read:

Selina Miles’ film is a portrait of photographer Martha Cooper, who, with inimitable energy and a sharp eye, recorded images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s—eras when the city’s vibrancy was deemed dangerous. Cooper’s images of graffiti and hip hop culture showcased a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.

Wow. I trust you’re beginning to understand my dread. The writer of the above paragraph claims that the city’s vibrancy of the ’70s and ’80s “was deemed dangerous.” Anyone who lived in the city in those years knows there was no deemed about it. The city was dangerous by any definition of the word, whether you define it by the murder rate, street crime, the onslaught of AIDS, the city’s teetering finances, or the countless abandoned and burning buildings. Of course there was an upside to that danger—an untethering of old sexual, social and artistic restraints, a sense that anything goes, a flowering of creativity that Martha Cooper chronicled and that continues to inspire artists today, from those who lived through it to those who were born after it had passed, from Patti Smith to Colum McCann, Will Hermes, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many others.

The writer of the paragraph in the catalog concludes that Martha Cooper’s photographs showcased “a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.” Now we’ve arrived at the true source of my dread: this movie was being offered up in service of the facile cliché that New York City used to be an interesting place but it got bled dry by big money, and all the artists got pushed out when the hedge-funders moved in. As someone who has been struggling to cover grand-larceny New York rents for most of my adult life, I can certainly corroborate that the city is—always has been, always will be—awash in real estate greed. As I write these words, I can look across the street at an ugly new 60-story glass condo tower and, next door to it, a construction site where another one is clawing its way into the sky. These abominations will never stop coming. There are more than 60,000 homeless people in the city today, and a hedge-fund gazillionaire just paid $240 million for a penthouse on Billionaires’ Row near Central Park. So, yes, there is real estate greed and there is obscene money and there is inequality in New York City today, and there is no denying that these forces have had a chilling effect on people struggling to make art. But to say that everyone is wearing a “frozen smile” is just lazy and wrong, and it feeds the blooming cottage industry of nostalgia, which I define as the yearning for a time that never existed, a time when everything was supposedly cheaper, freer, better.

coverThis nostalgia is nothing new. It dates back at least to the 1920s, when Edmund Wilson lamented that rising rents were driving writers and artists out of Greenwich Village, and a much-loved cultural gathering spot called Frank Shay’s Bookshop closed down, possibly because rents were rising and demographics were shifting. The ür-text of disillusionment with New York might be Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” from her nonfiction masterpiece, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay was Didion’s take on an old story—how a young person’s infatuation with New York, “the shining and perishable dream itself,” slowly unravels. In 2010, Patti Smith declared, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find another city.” Three years later, the musician David Byrne wrote a widely read essay bemoaning the way great wealth in the hands of the few was making the city untenable for the many, especially creative people. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” Byrne wrote, “so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” He described the city as pockets of gated “pleasure domes for the rich” surrounded by the striving 99 percent of the rest of us.

covercoverThat same year, Sari Botton edited a collection of essays by 28 women that borrowed its title from Didion’s essay (which was borrowed from Robert Graves’s memoir about his life through the First World War). Botton’s book, which carried the subtitle Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, was a string of bittersweet farewells in the Joan Didion mode. Perhaps a tick too bitter, because a year later Botton followed it with a more upbeat collection called Never Can Say Goodbye, which was a string of unabashed mash notes to the city, bearing the subtitle Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. I was particularly taken by Rosanne Cash’s essay, “New York, in the Mirror,” which catalogued the many downsides of New York life today—the crippling cost of living, of course, plus the demolition of cherished places to make way for franchise restaurants and nail salons and condos, the influx of obscene money, the hordes of tourists clogging the High Line. But in the end, Cash realizes she still loves living here. I agree with her conclusion about the recent changes: “It’s too bad, but it’s the way it is.” She might have added: It has been this way since forever, so quit whining and get on with it.

2.
When Martha: A Picture Story started rolling, my dread gave way to delight. Miles had wisely steered clear of the cockeyed nostalgia promised by the catalog notes and instead focused on her subject, a young woman with an unkillable dream of making it as a photographer in New York in the 1970s. There is home-movie footage of a young Martha Cooper in Japan with her husband, where she became fascinated by the subculture of tattooing, then more footage of her prowling the bunged-up and beautiful streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in the 1970s, camera in hand. Eventually she got hired by the New York Post, which gave her a license (and a paycheck) to chronicle the life of the streets, from the slums to Central Park. She gained entrée to the crews of artists who were coating subway cars with their rococo, loopy dreams, most notably the underground star Dondi. This, in turn, led her into the nascent world of hip hop, the deejays, break dancers and b-boys who had such an implausibly large hand in shaping today’s global culture. Economic hardship was a constant for Cooper, but she had found her place in the city and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have given it up for anything. Interviewed on camera, Cooper, now white-haired, comes off as intrepid, self-deprecating, very funny, deeply private, and nearly monastic in her devotion to chronicling the life of the streets. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon,” she says at one point, though she has clearly become both, with fans all over the world. As for New York back in the day, yes, it was dangerous, she says, “but it was actually a great place to explore.” As for what drove her to turn street life into art, she says with a shrug: “I believed in it.” And the subject of her art? “It’s about people who are making New York City their own.”

3.
As it happened, both Miles and Cooper were on hand for the screening I attended, and after the credits finished rolling, they stood at the front of the theater to take questions. A man in the audience asked Cooper if she had visited Brooklyn recently and seen all the fabulous street art sprinkled between all the obscene new condo towers. To her credit, Cooper didn’t take the bait. She said, “I don’t like to look backward. Yes, this city is getting iffy, but there are still interesting things out there. I don’t think gentrification is all good or all bad. I just wish I had gone to Williamsburg and Bushwick and taken more pictures.”

This drew an appreciative laugh. The next questioner asked Cooper if she saw herself as an artist or as an historian and anthropologist. “Now that’s a good question,” Cooper said, clearly implying that the leading question about gentrification was not. Cooper, in her humble way, said she never considered herself an artist. She said she was always more interested in documenting and preserving subcultures that were destined to blaze and then vanish. If nobody documents them, they will not only vanish, they will also be forgotten. History can’t live on memory alone. Without a whiff of pretension, Cooper made her life’s work sound almost like a holy calling. And in doing so, she implied that nothing—not money, not gentrification, not the corporate ooze now overtaking New York—has the power to keep her and her kind from pursuing their calling. I had walked into the theater feeling anticipation tinged with dread. I walked out feeling recharged and reborn. Thank you, Selina Miles. And thank you, Martha Cooper.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

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