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Home Culture Martha Cooper Talks ‘Martha: A Picture Story’ & NYC Graffiti Culture

Martha Cooper Talks ‘Martha: A Picture Story’ & NYC Graffiti Culture

by Munmun Akhter
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Martha Cooper Talks ‘Martha: A Picture Story’ & NYC Graffiti Culture

Martha Cooper is a highly influential photographer renowned for her documentation of New York City’s graffiti culture. From her early career as a photojournalist to her groundbreaking book “Subway Art” and the recent documentary “Martha: A Picture Story,” Cooper’s work has had a profound impact on the art world and the understanding of graffiti as a legitimate art form.


In the realm of graffiti culture, Martha Cooper’s name resonates strongly. Her photographs have captured the energy and vibrancy of New York City’s graffiti scene during its formative years. By exploring the streets, she became an eyewitness to an underground art movement that would later achieve worldwide recognition. Through her lens, Cooper captured the essence of an art form that was initially dismissed but eventually gained acceptance and appreciation.

Early Life and Photography Career

Martha Cooper’s journey as a photographer began in the 1960s. Born and raised in Baltimore, she developed an interest in photography at an early age. Cooper’s fascination with capturing moments and stories led her to pursue a career in photojournalism. Her work took her to diverse locations, documenting various communities and cultures.

Capturing the Birth of Graffiti Culture in NYC

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that Martha Cooper found herself drawn to the gritty streets of New York City. At that time, the city was facing numerous challenges, including social unrest and economic decline. Amidst this backdrop, a new art form was emerging—graffiti. Cooper recognized the significance of this cultural movement and made it her mission to document it.

Armed with her camera, Cooper ventured into the heart of New York City’s subway system. She captured captivating images of subway cars adorned with vibrant graffiti pieces. Her photographs captured the raw talent and artistic expression of the city’s graffiti writers. The rich visual tapestry she created was a testament to their creativity and the changing landscape of urban art.

‘Martha: A Picture Story’ Documentary

In 2019, the documentary film “Martha: A Picture Story” was released, providing an intimate portrait of Martha Cooper’s life and work. The film explores her deep connection to the graffiti culture and the impact of her photography on this underground movement. Through interviews and archival footage, viewers gain insight into the challenges and triumphs that Cooper experienced throughout her career.

The documentary also sheds light on the evolution of graffiti culture itself, highlighting the socio-cultural factors that influenced its growth and the changing public perception of this art form. “Martha: A Picture Story” is a testament to Cooper’s ability to capture the essence of a cultural movement and her commitment to preserving its history.

Martha Cooper’s Perspective on Graffiti Culture

Martha Cooper’s photographs go beyond mere documentation. She possesses a deep understanding and appreciation for the graffiti culture she captured. Cooper recognizes the talent, skill, and dedication that graffiti artists bring to their craft. Her photographs showcase the artistry, innovation, and imagination of these individuals who transform public spaces into captivating visual narratives.

Through her lens, Cooper captures the ephemeral nature of graffiti. The fleeting moments of artistry, the impermanence of these works, and the ever-changing cityscape all become part of her visual storytelling. Cooper’s ability to encapsulate these elements in her photographs allows viewers to experience the energy and excitement of graffiti culture firsthand.

Legacy and Impact

Martha Cooper’s contributions to graffiti culture and the art world are immeasurable. Her book “Subway Art,” co-authored with Henry Chalfant, played a pivotal role in popularizing graffiti as an art form beyond the streets of New York City. It became a source of inspiration for aspiring graffiti writers around the world and established Cooper as a leading figure in the movement.

Cooper’s photographs have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, further cementing her status as a respected photographer. Her work continues to inspire new generations of artists, documentarians, and photographers who seek to capture the essence of urban culture.


Martha Cooper’s dedication and passion for documenting graffiti culture have left an indelible mark on the art world. Through her photographs, she has preserved the early days of NYC graffiti, ensuring that this dynamic and influential movement is not forgotten. Martha Cooper’s work serves as a bridge between the past and the present, allowing us to appreciate the creativity, talent, and cultural significance of graffiti art.


1. How did Martha Cooper first become interested in photography?

Martha Cooper developed an interest in photography at an early age. She was fascinated by the idea of capturing moments and telling stories through images.

2. What is the significance of Martha Cooper’s book “Subway Art”?

“Subway Art,” co-authored by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, is a groundbreaking book that helped popularize graffiti as a legitimate art form. It showcased the talent and creativity of graffiti artists and became a source of inspiration for many aspiring writers.

3. How did Martha Cooper’s photographs impact the perception of graffiti culture?

Martha Cooper’s photographs humanized graffiti culture, showcasing the skill, artistry, and innovation of its creators. Her work played a significant role in changing public perception and recognizing graffiti as a legitimate form of artistic expression.

4. What is the documentary “Martha: A Picture Story” about?

“Martha: A Picture Story” is a documentary that provides an intimate look into Martha Cooper’s life and her deep connection to graffiti culture. It explores her contributions to the art world and her role in documenting the early days of NYC graffiti.

5. How has Martha Cooper’s work influenced future generations of artists and photographers?

Martha Cooper’s work has served as an inspiration for aspiring artists, documentarians, and photographers around the world. Her ability to capture the essence of urban culture and graffiti art continues to resonate and motivate new generations of creatives.

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