When she arrived at the new york post as the tabloids first female staff photographer in 1978, martha cooper asked her editors what they were looking for in a picture. cleavage, she was told. cooper, who had served in the peace corps and studied ethnography at oxford, had other ideas.

As she drove around the drug-infested lower east side and burnt-out bronx looking for things to photograph, her eye was drawn to children playing in the streets and vacant lots. a casual chat with one of them a boy sketching ideas for graffiti murals in a notebook would prove to be life-altering.

The boy introduced her to donald white, the undisputed king of graffiti artists. cooper gained whites trust, and soon began shooting pictures as he spray-painted his tag dondi in enormous, brightly coloured letters across train cars. for cooper, this was tricky work: it meant shooting all night in a dimly lit brooklyn train yard, and it was highly illegal.

This was a secret society i was allowed to enter, she tells the ft. these kids had a whole art world that adults didnt know about.

Other graffiti artists started phoning cooper when they had finished painting a train, hoping she could photograph their pieces before the city covered them with a fresh coat of silver paint.

Images of these graffiti-covered subway cars, many shot by cooper, have come to epitomise the gritty new york of the 1970s and beyond. it was exciting, she says. i felt like this is my exclusive shot this is gonna disappear soon and im going to have the picture. i was totally obsessed.

At 77, cooper continues to photograph street artists around the world, including some who are working illegally. i like edgy, she says.

Martha cooper: taking pictures is due to run at the urban nationmuseum for urban contemporary art, berlin, october 2-august 1 2021; . the exhibition is curated by jaime rojo and steve p. harrington of.

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