Kids And The City

American photographer Martha Cooper is best known for her work documenting New York’s golden age of graffiti during the 1980’s. Yet, as the pre-graffiti photographs featured in her book “Street Play” (From Here To Fame Publishing) make clear, it was her passion for the City’s streets that led her to its subways’ roaming murals.

The images document children at play in the midst of a city on the verge of collapse. Framed by vacant lots and crumbling buildings, the children are as resourceful as the landscape is bleak. Cooper captures both the joy and the rubble, with no trace of sentimentality or earnestness; the resulting tension provides the images with their power.

“I tend to have an optimistic outlook in general,” she explains, “and almost never focus on pure poverty or miserable conditions. My photos generally show people making the most with whatever they have.”

While Cooper has documented children at play around the world, “Street Play” is the product of a particular time and place. “Finding these photos in New York City, especially in Manhattan in the 1980s, was definitely a result of the conditions of the Lower Eastside at that time,” she says. “The city was going bankrupt and large housing complexes were being torn down, so there were a lot of empty buildings, vacant lots, raw materials and lack of supervision (parental or police).”

A lot has changed since then. “In New York today, I rarely shoot any photos of children at play. I simply don’t see any on the street. Partly this has to do with parents being much more cautious about letting their kids play alone outside. In the 80’s, there were no AIDS-infected needles lying around and child abuse was not known to be a problem as it is today.”

Which might explain her fondness for Street Play. “This is my favorite set of photos. They evoke nostaglia, for my childhood and also for a bygone era of New York City. I like to think that they capture a universal feeling of what it is like to be a child.”

That they do, with an unmistakable New York accent.

Originally published in WAD Magazine print edition.