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henry chalfant, martha cooper, ok harris

STRAAT pays homage: Henry Chalfant @ OK Harris

STRAAT is proud to continue the efforts of our predecessors when it comes to showcasing graffiti and street art as a gallery-worthy and museal artform. Which is why we will revisit several exhibitions from the past that laid the foundation for what we are able to do today, in a series of articles called STRAAT pays homage. Remember: if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don't know where you’re going...

Henry Chalfant at the OK Harris Gallery, New York City, 1980

Henry Chalfant, the godfather of graffiti photography, arrived in New York City in 1973. At the time, he was perhaps best described - professionally - as a former sculptor/amateur photographer. Almost immediately after arriving in NYC, Chalfant became obsessed with graffiti, in particular on the subways. He befriended certain graffiti writers, who first mentioned Martha Cooper - the godmother of graffiti photography - to him. 

Over time, Chalfant established a major collection of photos, which he eventually showed to Ivan Karp, owner of the OK Harris Gallery in SoHo. Karp invited Chalfant to do a solo show, which made its debut in early September, 1980. Graffiti writers from all over New York attended the exhibition, as did Martha Cooper, who was brought along by certain writers.

Chalfant and Cooper immediately established a friendship. Both photographers had made plans individually to release a book, but to no avail. They decided to join forces: 

“We realized that our ways of approaching graffiti were completely different and complementary, since Marty was a professional photographer and her photos revealed the ambiance and the context of the art on the trains, while my method of photomontage emphasized the artworks themselves.” / Henry Chalfant [1]

henry chalfant, martha cooper, subway art
Subway Art in our STRAAT museum shop

Through Martha Cooper’s connections to European photojournalists, the duo ended up at the Frankfurter Buchmesse (Europe’s biggest book fair). There, they were introduced to publishing house Thames & Hudson, which would eventually publish the ultimate graffiti bible Subway Art (By Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper) and, later on, Spraycan Art (by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff - RIP).

Although technically speaking Chalfant’s exhibition at the OK Harris Gallery was dedicated to photographs of subway graffiti - as opposed to the giant canvases we currently have on display - this show is such an essential moment in the development of graffiti. The books that were published as a result of the meeting between Chalfant and Cooper are of priceless value to our culture’s international spreading, including the acceptance of its museal qualities.

No book collection on graffiti and street art is complete without Subway Art. And if just Subway Art doesn’t satisfy your nostalgic appetite, our museum shop also carries Martha Cooper’s Hip Hop Files, photographs documenting the emergence of New York hip hop culture in the years 1979 to 1984, including tons of graffiti pictures.


Article by Alex Pope

Pictures: Martha Cooper / STRAAT


[1] Chalfant, Henry & Martha Cooper. Subway Art: 25th anniversary edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009. p. 7.

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