Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures

until May 15, 2022

With “Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures” the URBAN NATION Museum presents the first comprehensive retrospective of Martha Cooper’s photographic work to date. Using photographs and personal objects, the exhibition, which spans six decades, traces Martha Cooper’s life and pays tribute to her as an important documentarist of the worldwide Urban Art movement.


The retrospective at the URBAN NATION Museum is the institution’s first photo and documentary exhibition. “Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures” sets new trends in the museum program. The curators Steven P. Harrington and Jaime Rojo (Brooklyn Street Art) in close cooperation with Martha Cooper, have created a multimedia exhibition in which artistic works and documentary material are juxtaposed.

Visitors will receive an exclusive insight into Martha Cooper’s collection of sketchbooks (so-called “Black Books”) and memorabilia as well as into her extensive photo archive. Numerous objects from her personal collection contextualize her work and its cultural and historical relevance.

Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures


In the late 1970s, Martha Cooper began documenting graffiti and hip hop, phenomenons not previously known by that name. While in 1977 she became the first female photographer to work for the New York Post, she developed a sense for this important moment in cultural history. Forty years later, it is evident that she succeeded in capturing the spirit of the times in her photographs in an impressive manner while setting a monument to the Urban Art movement.

„Historic preservation is my thing […]  I’m always looking to take a picture that will be of interest in the future—a photograph that will become representative of its time.“ – Martha Cooper

Ausstellung Martha Cooper Urban Nation


Together with Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper published the book “Subway Art” in 1984, which is now considered the “bible of graffiti” and helped the then new art movement to make its breakthrough. The photographs contained in the book document the hidden subculture of young graffiti artists and their illegal artwork on thousands of trains in New York City. From today’s perspective, the publication of the illustrated book is a milestone in contemporary photography history with regard to the documentation of graffiti and street art. In addition to the iconic photographs from “Subway Art”, the exhibition presents the original of the publication’s prototype with which Chalfant and Cooper applied for with numerous publishers.

Subway Art Buch Martha Cooper


Martha Cooper’s responsibilities at the New York Post were diverse. They ranged from the documentation of crimes to photographs of famous personalities and so-called “weather shots”. These were a series of individual pictures that appeared as full-page illustrations in the newspaper. The bankrupt city was marked by poverty and misery. At the same time, however, a multitude of free spaces opened up for those people who creatively appropriated the city. The photographer focused on capturing the feeling of living in New York City in the 1970s. Many of the pictures from this period can be discovered in the exhibition.

During a trip to Haiti in 1978, Martha Cooper photographed children playing in the streets with toys built from found objects. Back in New York, at the end of each shift at the New York Post, she searched for motifs to fill her analog films with. An important subject for her was once again children playing creatively without adult supervision. From then on, Cooper pursued this theme in Manhattan’s Lower East Side as well as in many other countries around the world.

Fotografien von Martha Cooper


The photographic juxtaposition of the Sowebo neighborhood (short for Southwest Baltimore) in her hometown Baltimore and the Soweto settlement (Southwest Township) in Johannesburg, South Africa is one of many projects influenced by Martha Cooper’s ethnological studies. She recognized the similarities between the two communities and made them the main theme of this series, which spans 10 years:

Everyday life that goes on in the streets, with neighbors gathering for informal barbeques and kids playing with toys that don’t require batteries – those are the kinds of things that I try to photograph. To me they show an indomitable human spirit triumphing against overwhelming odds.” – Martha Cooper

Urban Nation Ausstellung Martha Cooper


Over the years, Martha Cooper has worked with numerous artists from all over the world. One example is Keith Haring, who, following the practices of graffiti writers, appropriated public space and was one of the first to initiate the street art movement. For Cooper, the focus was not on the completed work, but rather on documenting the methods, techniques and materials. Numerous artworks and photographs testify to these connections and are shown in the exhibition for the first time.

Bilder von Stree Art Künstlern


One section presents 35 artistic works, so-called “remixes”, in a group exhibition. These were created by artists on the basis of Martha Cooper’s photographs, but also as homage to her and her oeuvre. They illustrate the enormous influence that Martha Cooper’s works have on artists from different generations and styles of the urban art scene.

Wandbild Seth Urban Nation


The French street artist SETH has created a two-story mural inside the museum especially for the exhibition, which impressively combines the chapters “Street Play” and “Martha Remixed”. The large-format mural represents the latest collaboration between Martha Cooper and SETH, who have been friends for many years.

Selina Miles Videoinstallation Urban Nation


Australian filmmaker Selina Miles accompanied Martha Cooper for over a year for her documentary “Martha: A Picture Story”, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2019. Exclusively for the exhibition, Miles developed the video installation entitled “The Rushes” from previously unpublished scenes that provide an insight into Martha Cooper’s everyday life and work.

Participating artists:

Cey Adams, AFRO, Andres Art, Blanco, Mark Bodé, Bordalo II, Buster, C215, Carja, Victor Castillo, Cosbe, Daze, Jane Dickson, Owen Dippie, Ben Eine, Shepard Fairey, Freedom, Fumakaka, Futura, Grotesk, Logan Hicks, HuskMitNavn, Japao, James Jessop & Dscreet, Nicolas Lacombe, Justen Ladda, Lady Aiko, Lady Pink, The London Police, Mantra, John „Crash“ Matos, Nazza, Nunca, Okuda, Os Gêmeos, Alice Pasquini, Phlegm, Pixel Pancho, Dr. Revolt, Seth Globepainter, Skeme, Skewville, Skolas, Chris Stain, Tats Cru (Bio, BG183 and Nicer), Vhils, Ernest Zacharevic.

Photo Credits: Photo 1,2,4,5,6,7 by Nika Kramer / Photo 3+8 by Victoria Tomaschko

(Museums Management: Jan Sauerwald)

Video of the Opening 

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The exhibition takes place as part of EMOP Berlin – European Month of Photography

The art education project “Spiel Straße”, which takes place in the context of the exhibition, with a 5th grade at Otto-Wels-Grundschule Kreuzberg is funded by the Berlin Cultural Education Project Fund in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district.

Additional information about the exhibition 


Director of the Museum, Project Head

Jan Sauerwald, Stiftung Berliner Leben


Steven P. Harrington, Jaime Rojo

Project Management

Christiane Pietsch, Stiftung Berliner Leben

Exhibition Production

Michelle Houston, Reinaldo Verde, Samuel Walter, Florian Groß and the team from

YES, AND… Productions GmbH, Berlin

Exhibition Architecture and Design

Malte Schurau, Carsten Cielobatzki, Tobias Kunz, Studio TK, Berlin, as well as

Michelle Houston, Reinaldo Verde, YES, AND… Productions GmbH, Berlin

Exhibition Graphics

Annette Dooman, Jean-Paul Laue, Studio TK, Berlin

Photo Prints

XL-Digitaldruck, Berlin

Oversize Prints

Annette Herwegh


Lovely Projects, Berlin


Zehnpfennig+Weber, Berlin


Jens Rüberg and Fairnatic GmbH, Berlin

Press / PR

Nancy Henze, Gewobag AG

Online Communication

Beatrice Lindhorst, Steve Fiedler, Gewobag AG, and Nicola Petek


Sophia Lux, Stiftung Berliner Leben

Financial Management

Aune Tette, Jutta Zander, Stiftung Berliner Leben