The Profile Dossier: Martha Cooper, the Legendary Graffiti Photographer Who Captured a Cultural Movement
“If art like this is a crime, then let God forgive me."
Martha Cooper is something of a graffiti documentarian and pioneer.
In 1977, Cooper became the first female staff photographer at The New York Post. That journey took her on a personal adventure that would lead her deep into New York City’s emerging graffiti art scene. At the time, this form of art was largely dismissed as being “immoral,” “lacking in artistic merit,” and being downright vandalism.
While on assignment for The Post, Cooper met a young graffiti artist known as HE3, who first told her about ‘tagging,’ or the stylized graffiti signatures artists spray on street walls or other surfaces. From there, HE3 introduced her to some of the most legendary graffiti artists of the time, including Dondi and Blade.
“After meeting Dondi I was hooked. In the process of documenting graffiti I became interested in hip hop as some of the writers were also rappers or breakers,” Cooper says. “By following graffiti, I stumbled upon hip-hop.”
Cooper was at the right place at the right time, and she recognized the very early beginnings of a massive cultural movement. "You know, most people thought graffiti was pure vandalism and not worth my time, but I believed in it,” she says. “[They were] young people that were so into their art that they would risk their lives to do it.”
Cooper’s interest in observing people master their craft started at a really young age. Her father owned a camera store, and her mother taught high school journalism. A pairing of the two seemed natural to her, adding that she saw “taking pictures is a way of life.”
Graffiti felt like a secret that only a select few knew about. “I was fascinated by the idea that young people had invented their own art world with their own language and set of aesthetics that most adults were unaware of,” Cooper says.
Today, Cooper is 80 years old, and she continues to hone her craft. As her Instagram says, she’s “still snappin’.”
With a career spanning six decades, here’s what we can learn from Cooper about the importance of breaking rules, discovering your passion, and allowing some room for serendipity.
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