The need to document the art before it is washed away, cleaned up or painted over, derives out of the transient nature of the spray paint on walls. In that way, the photographs of worldwide urban art live forever. The images of tagged New York Subways, Berlin’s murals, Paris’ mosaics or London’s painted brick walls have been captured and shared with thousands of people, keeping at least the images of street art in the mind of urban art admirers. The people that ensure that street art is archived are amateur photographers, photojournalists and artists, sometimes anonymous, sometimes well-known, usually street artists themselves. These documenters don't merely capture the photo of graffiti or a mural, they portray the quirks of a city, the action of graffiti writing, the atmosphere, the sprayer's complicated feelings towards danger, the wish to create art and the lengths they will go through in order to do it. These 10 photographers try to convey a deeper message and change our perception of the people and urban landscapes that surround us. They bring out the beauty of street art in all its glory.
Keegan Gibbs is one of the best-known street art photographers. Gibbs prioritizes the artists over the artwork, which means that rather than just taking the photo of the street art, he places the artist in the center of the attention. He follows the best street artists of Los Angeles and climbs with them onto buildings, rooftops and billboards. The subject of the picture is nearly almost the one holding the spray-can. This makes the viewer feel more present and more emphatic towards the street artist. Keegan Gibbs transfers the adrenaline that one gets by being a witness onto the viewer. He believes that his photography should tell a story and his graffiti photography, essentially, tells the story of a sprayer. That is why he started accompanying his photographs with essays and stories of nights out with the artists. The interesting fact is that he used to be scared of heights, however, the fear and adrenaline of getting caught, quickly replaced any fear of altitude.
Martha Cooper is an American photojournalist from Baltimore. When she was three years old, she held a camera in her hands for the first time and that was the moment when her passion for photography was born. Martha Copper is most famous for her documentation of New York subway tagging in the 80’s and the birth of street art. Her work is the most extensive and significant of its kind. In 1979 she met graffiti writer HE3, who took the photographer inside New York’s growing graffiti scene. Cooper met Dondi, one of the biggest stars of graffiti. Then she began following the sprayers on their subway tours and photographing everything, since she wanted to document the paintings within their full context. This led her to release her most famous work Subway Art, a portfolio of graffiti tagging in the 80’s. The book was released in collaboration with Henry Chalfant, who is also a graffiti photographer. Beside Subway art, Martha Cooper released the books: Hip Hop Files, R.I.P. New York Spraycan Memorials and From Here to Fame.
German street art photographer Jürgen Große captures urban art found in Berlin. The book Urban Art Photography shows the urban landscape of Germany’s capital from a never-seen-before angle. It is photographed with care and attention, within its full context and each photograph is placed carefully in this book. Urban Art Photography presents artwork from Berlin that communicates with its environment in a subversive way. Successfully capturing this interplay, the book serves as a permanent documentation and a time capsule of these constantly changing images in Berlin. Jürgen Große does this by systematically visiting courtyards and open spaces, entering empty houses and abandoned construction sites or just walking down the streets, in his quest for capturing the fleeting, unfinished face of Berlin. Although his observation is planned and purposeful, many of those actions lead him to a new place, where discoveries happen accidentally. For him, it's all about discovering places and buildings that provoke emotions.
Starting out as a sculptor in New York in the 1970s, Henry Chalfant turned to photography and film to do an in-depth study of hip-hop culture, breakdance and graffiti art. Henry Chalfant is one of the foremost authorities on New York subway art, and other aspects of urban youth culture. His photographs document hundreds of ephemeral, original artworks that have long since vanished. The collaboration with Martha Cooper on the book Subway Art is a testament to that. Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania exhibit his photos. Apart from photography, Chalfant also dedicated himself to documenting hip-hop culture on film. He co-produced Style Wars, which won the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival and is considered to be one of the most recognized and influential street art movies.
Nils Müller is a former graffiti artist from Cologne, Germany, who taught himself photography so that he could immortalize his work. Instead of focusing on street art, he looks at the act of creation and all the emotional tension that it involves. His photographs elevate graffiti to a sophisticated visual language, one that is thrilling both for its illicit nature and aesthetic value. Just like Keegan Gibbs, Müller empathizes with the street artist in the photo, and tries to portray their characters and personalities. He published two books: Bluetezeit and Vandals. In both books he documents the process behind painting graffiti on trains.
Italian photographer Alex Fakso began his career in the early 1990s as a skateboard photographer. He subsequently embarked upon a more targeted personal quest which led him to record the entire process of graffiti writers in action, in both train and subway depots. Street art is rarely the subject of his work. A graffiti writer himself, Alex Fakso's photographs depict the way rather than the goal. The photographer makes shots of the street artist preparing to paint the graffiti, jumping a fence and running away, and in that way, tries to capture the emotions and challenging situations graffiti writers have to go trough during their creative process. In the 1990s, before the era of digital photography, it was quite challenge and he was one of the few who did that. Fakso collaborated with the Os Gemeos twins, well-known street artists from Brazil. He also had an exhibition with Martha Cooper. Fakso's work is documented in his two published books Heavy Metal and Fast Or Die.
German photographer Ruedi One was an active graffiti writer himself, and the need to document his works turned him into a photographer. He says that passion, obsession and even addiction connect him to the medium these days and by now he exclusively uses the camera for his works. For almost a decade, he has been documenting the writers' scene and in that way remained part of it as its visual chronicler. Just like Alex Fakso's work, the photographs which Ruedi One takes make the viewer feel what graffiti is about on the emotional side: the images show all the tension, the adrenalin and the kicks that graffiti writers experience. His mostly black and white work portrays the active street art scene around the world– whether it is New York City, Sao Paulo or Hamburg. His most famous work is Montana Writer Team book in which he presented the street artists Atom, Cantwo, Dash, Kent and Smash137.
Ian Cox has visited about every street art event there is. Cox is a part of the Nuart crew of the annual international urban art festival Nuart (in Stavanger, West Coast of Norway) and responsible for nearly every picture we get from the street art mecca Stavanger. He documented large portions of the murals in the well-known district Wynwood, Miami, and has not missed one street art exhibition in the UK. The photographer has a photo stream of over 8 000 pictures documenting street art. Ian Cox captures the artist as well as the art. He is responsible for the viral spreading of street art (and we mean that in a positive way) and its worldwide accessibility.
We can’t tell you the true identity of Butterfly because we don’t know it. What we can do is make assumptions. The website butterflyartnews.com regularly posts pictures from street art events in London. That includes exhibitions at Lazarides or Howard Griffin as well as the urban art auctions at Phillips and Sotheby’s. The pictures are also often used by media partners, and one of them is CNN. Images from Butterfly are used regularly in art reports of Erin McLaughlin, one of the CNN anchors who moderates for CNN. While we cannot do anything but indulge in speculations about Butterfly’s true identity, we can say for sure that she is the one to thank for the images we receive from inside the contemporary art market.
JR is a French urban art photographer and a street artist, whose identity is unconfirmed. He takes pictures of people, pastes them on the walls and then takes a photo of it to publicly share his work. JR claims that he exhibits in the largest art gallery in the world - in the streets. His numerous projects (Inside Out, Women are Heroes, Face2Face, 28 Milimetres, etc) all include elements of both photography and street art. Much of his work is illegal, yet he managed to win the TED Prize for his work which aims to change the world one step at a time. He created the biggest illegal exhibition for the Face2Face project and placed monumental portraits of Israeli and Palestinian men and women face to face to show that they are fundamentally alike. For the Women are Heroes project he presented the faces of women who had a painful past and are longing for a better future. His projects in some of the poorest countries, and the fact that he reinvests in the slums where the project was carried out, make him quite a remarkable figure.