For decades Marty Cooper has been the eminent documentarian in the graffiti scene, being one of the first photographers to treat the New York subway chasers as artists back in the 70s. Her book Subway Art is considered a primer in the graf scene not to mention her subsequent books on New York. But for the last three years, Cooper has led a kind of second life as a trundling woman padding around with her cameras on one of Baltimore’s more dangerous, desolalate and strangely escentric neighborhoods known as SoWeBo (Southwest Baltimore).
Having grown up in Baltimore in a leafy northwest neighborhood of Mount Washington, Cooper had returned to the city to document a neighborhood in transition, a neighborhood before it was discovered by investors and real estate gamblers, rehabbed and repackaged for its quaint genteelly charmed. Marty was looking for was what she missed when she first went to New York and chased bombed trains, missing the strange oddness of those places like the Bronx, poor, abandoned by determined to create their own life and culture. It was no accident that the graf and the hip hop scene came from these streets.
As far as she is concerned she missed her opportunity with New York’s borroughs, but she figured Baltimore now that’s a city despite its gold rush development still has neighborhoods out in the hinterlands of poverty.
The neighborhood that she picked actually got much drug dealing exposure in David Simon’s The Corner, the book, and then TV show and surely must have informed his follow-up The Wire.
But Cooper is interested in much more than well trodden prism of cops verses drug dealers, which Simon defty smashes by the way. Cooper takes a much more anthropological look, casting the broadest net as possible with her cameras. To do this Cooper bought a small house as a base of operation in the neighborhood and every three weeks or so she would wade out down the street, wearing her gear and just take pictures. Then she would come back giving out photos establishing herself as the picture lady, someone who could be trusted.
The neighborhood that she picked was extronarily rich in architecture as it was marred in decay. Southwest Baltimore around Hollins Market and Union Square had been the neighborhood of Baltimore’s still most famous arthor H.L. Mencken. (“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.“—- Mencken) The homes were regally built, three story affairs with all kinds of architectural garnishings like 2nd level porches with daylight windows, rooms that sort of jut out of the rowhome like jewels. They had large bricked patios and gardens that backed up to Alley houses, small tiny two story rowhouses where the servants lived. These houses were also occupied by Irish railroad workers who had jobs at the nearby B & O rail yards and roundhouse just blocks south. In this way, poor and the well off lived side by side. It was Baltimore Gothic at its best, a funky aside to New Orlean’s more astir Garden District. But the wealthy folk long left the city by mid-20th Century and the Baltimore’s decline just beat these kinds of neighborhood. But left in its wake were both poor white and black, making this swath one of the more racially mixed sections in a city which can segregate like the best of ’em.
To make the rounds with Marty Cooper cutting through alleys down once robust mercantile streets like Baltimore Street now mostly shuttered is to see the complex poor world invisible and left to rot by the healthy society just blocks away adding towers to the skyline. Just to the east stands University of Maryland’s burgeoning bio-tech park, the tourist trap that is Camden Yards Stadium and the glittering Inner Harbor. Before us stood a mixture of abject poverty and a kind of crabgrass beauty of humanity. It’s like steeping beyond a well tended garden into the wilds. We came upon a privately made homeless park with an art piece constructed with spickets for showers for people who shun the conventional shelters. We met a woman giving out a flyer of her missing friend, murdered and in the morgue. She wanted to warn other women of a suspected killer on the lose. We visited a second floor mosque that operated as a fast food joint on the first floor. We met a one man steel fabricator working out an ancient gas station. We came across kids and old people sitting on steps more relaxed than any vacationer paying top dollar for their Victorian porches in Cape May N.J. There was the ever present sense of danger. Drug dealing is still a key industry and there were some harden faces walking about. I couldn’t help but recall the time I was held up at gun point ten years ago just up the street and we were just trying to get some pizza and some sweet potato fries.
Many that we met that day, Marty had previously photographed. She would hand them photographs, People studied them realizing these weren’t exactly snapshots.
Marty approached them warmly as if a former teacher happy to stumble onto former students. She asked if she could take their picture and without the fanfare of a photgrapher adjusting apature, checking the light meter etc …. she merely snapped a picture. But the results are devilishly more astute than what is found in the family album. Marty somehow gets her people to relax, giving true smiles or just forget her altogether to capture them digging into their lives.
Her pictures become even more poignant when contrasted with what’s being covered in the mainstream press. Even noble exercises in journalism found in the New York Times, such as articles by Dan Barry for example, don’t capture the odd grafting of beauty and sadness or sometimes just painful, sometimes just inspiring, like those kids just going at those crabs, a Baltimore delacacy that now costs a fortune — A dozen crabs can run between $45 to $70. Notice the style of the Obama supporter, how blue his shirt and cap is, how the white of his undershirt matches the piping of his cap. So put together out there among the streets of peeling brick and boarded up windows. Yes there is a sense of resilency out here but there’s also a morbid foreshadowing.