Martha Cooper shows her subway art photos in exhibition

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Published: December 6, 2011

Last updated:

About the exhibition

This Saturday the exhibition of Martha Cooper and Nils Müller opened. The exhibition is running until the 8th of January, 2011.

From Saturday, 3rd December 2011 to 8th of January, 2012, photographers Martha Cooper (US) and Nils Müller (DE) showed works at The Gallerian INC. in Bochum, Germany. Both are well-known for taking photos of graffiti writers, especially those that paint their names on trains. Curated by Martin Schulze & presented by Public Delivery.

Who is Martha Cooper?

Martha Cooper (b. 1942) started out as a photojournalist and was one of the first to document the early hours of the breakdance and graffiti culture in New York. In 1984 she published the book “Subway Art” together with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant. “Subway Art” became an important milestone of the graffiti movement and one of the major sources of inspiration for aspiring European writers.

Cooper’s photography was influenced by her studies in ethnology, which tries to describe and understand different cultures. She took some portraits of writers in New York, usually when they were not painting but mostly her photos showed the painted trains themselves. New York City with its elevated subway tracks was the perfect background for some of her legendary shots.

The New York clean train movement

Eventually, the movement in New York faded away in the late 1980s and painting trains turned into a felony, which could get a writer jail time and thousands of dollars in fines. Graffiti spread to Europe and developed in many different directions. One is painting subways, which is considered the top prize within the international graffiti world. Subways hold such a high value because of the difficulty, danger, and risk involved in painting them. Regardless of the subway system or the country, razor-wired fences have to be cut or climbed, motion sensors, cameras, and alarm systems have to be overcome. Fines and arrests are the risks to take. Subway painting has separated itself from the common graffiti community as it is a more secretive sect of the elite who push the bar and have created something which can be likened to an extreme graffiti sport. It is exactly this elite and their practices which Nils Müller (b. 1982) started to document ten years ago.

Nils Müller’s graffiti photos

On Müller’s photos, the colored trains are usually secondary, as he focuses on documenting the action of writing on trains. He shows a view into a split second of this practice from his perspective, often when things are happening so fast that there isn’t a second to stop. There is a story that is told, the skillful entering through secured emergency exits, the swift dash on subway tracks while the subway system is in service. The emotions that are captured stem from successes to failures; the tension and fear, the sense of focus and determination of the writers are clearly felt throughout his work.

Müller’s work on his Vandals series is on-going and took him to European metropolises such as Paris and London, visiting Berlin, Bucharest, Oslo, and Milano but also documenting international destinations like Bangkok, Shanghai, Caracas, and New York. Müller takes a variety of risks in order to document these actions and this global movement. He is, like the ones he depicts on his photos, threatened by arrest, imprisonment and heavy monetary penalties in his native Europe, while his work in other countries carries a far higher risk, where security forces are equipped with machine guns.

Müller is currently working on a follow up to his first book “Blütezeit” (Gingko Press, 2009) which will be released in early 2012.

– Martin Schulze


All images: Courtesy of the artists (Martha Cooper & Nils Müller)


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