Martha Cooper is an American photojournalist born in the 1940s in Baltimore, Maryland. She worked as a staff photographer for the New York Post during the 1970s. She is best known for documenting the New York City graffiti scene of the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1984, Cooper and Henry Chalfant published their photographs of New York City graffiti in the book Subway Art, which has been called the graffiti bible and by 2009 had sold half a million copies.
Cooper picked up photography at the age of three. She graduated from high school at the age of 16, earned an art degree at age 19 from Grinnell College. She taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, journeyed by motorcycle from Bangkok to London and received an anthropology diploma from Oxford. Her first experience in artistic photography began when Cooper was in Japan, and capturing images of elaborate tattoos.
She was a photography intern at National Geographic in the 1960s, and worked as a staff photographer at the New York Post in the 1970s. Her photographs have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian and Natural History magazines as well as several dozen books and journals.
Her most known personal work, the New York City graffiti scene of the 1970s and 1980s, began while working at the New York Post. On her return home from the Post she began taking photographs of children in her New York City neighborhood. One day she met a young kid named Edwin Serrano (He3) who helped expose her to some of the graffiti around her neighborhood. Serrano helped to explain to her that Graffiti is an art form and that each artist was actually writing his/her nickname. He introduced her to the graffiti “king”, Dondi. Dondi was the first to allow her to accompany him – while he was tagging she would take photos of his work. After meeting with Dondi, Cooper became fascinated with the underground subculture that these graffiti artists had created in New York City. In the 1984 she put together a book of photographs illustrating the graffiti subculture called Subway Art. It became known as the Bible of street art.
In the 1980s Cooper worked briefly in Belize photographing the people and archaeological remains of the Mayan culture at sites such as Nohmul and Cuello.
She is the Director of Photography at City Lore, the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture