PEACE CORPS WRITERS is pleased to announce that Subway Art: 25th Anniversary Edition by Martha Cooper (Thailand 1963–65) has won the 2010 Award for the Outstanding Photography Book published by a Peace Corps photographer during 2009. Cooper will receive a framed certificate and a prize of $200.
The book has a long history. In the mid-seventies Martha began to specialize in shooting urban vernacular art and architecture and went to work as a staff photographer on the New York Post. At the time, the city was in the throes of bankruptcy and there were neighborhoods with empty apartment buildings, litter-filled vacant lots, a city that appeared more like a war zone than a place to live.
She started to shoot street life, particularly kids playing creatively with toys they had made themselves from trash. A young boy showed her his notebook of drawings and explained that he was practicing to spray paint his name on walls, and Martha became hooked on graffiti. The resulting photos of large graffiti murals painted illegally on the subway eventually led to the publication of Subway Art, a collaboration with Henry Chalfant, another photographer who had also been photographing graffiti.
Their original book proposal was rejected by dozens of publishers in the United States so the two took their work to the Frankfurt book fair in Germany where Thames and Hudson of London agreed to publish it. That slim, 96-page paperback, became a underground sensation, eventually selling over half a million copies, and starting a worldwide youth art movement. Kids from South Africa to China have told the authors that Subway Art was a major influence in their lives.
Last year, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the publication of the book, Thames and Hudson published Subway Art: 25th Anniversay Edition with 70 additional photographs, and a fresh introduction and afterword. An over-sized, hardcover edition with excellent layout and reproduction, the new book displays the photos and graffiti art as Martha and Henry had envisioned so many years ago.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer Martha Cooper taught English in middle schools in Udorn, a large city in the northeast of Thailand, and in Chieng Kham, a small town in the north. While living in Chieng Kham, she became interested in the Hmong, Yao and Akha hill tribes living in the surrounding mountains. After meeting tribes people at the local market she hiked to their remote villages where she photographed extensively. These excursions led her to apply to Oxford to obtain a graduate degree in ethnology with an emphasis on material culture and museum work.
Returning home, Martha worked at the Smithsonian and the Peabody Museum at Yale, but decided that she would rather be in the field than confined to a building. With that she began to concentrate on photography, and in 1975 moved to New York City where she discovered her love of street art.
Her other books are R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art which looks at memorial murals; Hip Hop Files 1980-1984 contains hundreds of rare, early Hip Hop photos; and We B*Girlz, an intensive look at girls who break dance worldwide. Street Play and New York State of Mind are collections of her NYC photos from the late ’70s. Tag Town shows the evolution of graffiti style from early tags to complicated pieces, while Going Postal and Name Tagging contain hundreds of images of graffiti and street art on stickers.
Martha’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and published in numerous magazines from National Geographic to Vibe.
She still lives and works in New York City, but 4 1/2 years ago she began a documentary photo project in her home town of Baltimore. She is also the Director of Photography at both City Lore: the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture, and TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York).
To order Martha’s books from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support these awards.