Celebrated around the globe as the doyenne of graffiti photographers, the long career of American photographer Martha Cooper has not been limited to this field. Having expressed a liking for photography early on, an experience of volunteer work in Thailand sparked her interest in anthropology, leading her to study ethnology at the University of Oxford. Seeking to use the camera as a tool for fieldwork, Cooper has been documenting subjects that usually go unnoticed to the majority of people – from Japanese traditional tattoo culture to urban youth subcultures.

In the 1970s, Cooper began working as a photojournalist at the New York Post. During her daily rounds about the city in the service of the newspaper she started shooting street scenes with children, focused on the creativity and imagination with which they used the public space and

the games they played while removed from the gaze of adults. It was in this context that she first came into contact with the phenomenon of graffiti, which was then burgeoning, having met the writer Dondi, one of its leading exponents, who opened the doors to a whole new world – ferociously creative, outlaw and secretive.

Having earned the trust of the writers, Cooper would go on to document the golden years of New York subway graffiti, between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s. This activity would culminate in the publishing of the book “Subway Art” with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant – held as the bible of New York style graffiti and largely responsible for popularising the art form around the world.

Yet Cooper’s perceptive gaze is not limited to the subject or the artwork in itself. To the photographer, equally important, if not more so, is the context in which these occur, the particularities of the culture, the community.

Martha Cooper © Sally Levin