Martha Cooper (b. 1943, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.) is a documentary photographer who has specialized in shooting urban vernacular art and architecture for 40 years. In 1977, Cooper moved from Rhode Island to New York City and worked as a staff photographer on the New York Post for three years. During that time, she began to document graffiti and b-boying, subjects which led to her extensive coverage of early hip hop as it emerged from the Bronx. These photos, published worldwide, helped make hip hop the predominant international youth movement it is today.
Cooper’s first book Subway Art (with Henry Chalfant), has been in print since 1984 and is affectionately called the “bible” by graffiti artists. Her next book, R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art, looks at memorial murals in New York City, while Hip Hop Files 1980-1984 contains hundreds of rare, early hip hop photos. We B*Girlz is an intensive look at girls who breakdance worldwide, and Street Play and New York State of Mind are her collections of New York City photos from the late 1970s. Tag Town shows the evolution of graffiti style from early tags to complicated pieces. Going Postal and Name Tagging contain hundreds of images of graffiti and street art on postal stickers. Remembering 9/11 captures the variety of spontaneous memorials that sprang up in New York after the attack on the World Trade Center. Tokyo Tattoo 1970, published in 2011 by Dokument in Sweden, showcases photos she took while living in Japan in the 1970s.
Cooper’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and published in numerous magazines from National Geographic to Vibe. She still lives in Manhattan but travels frequently to urban art festivals around the world. Recently, Cooper has been documenting street artists painting in Wynwood, Miami, as well as shooting an ongoing personal project comparing Sowebo (South West Baltimore) to Soweto (South Western Townships), South Africa. She is also working on a book with 1UP, a notorious graffiti crew in Berlin.
Martha Cooper, New York, 1982 (Background artwork by Bill Blast). Photo © Henry Chalfant.