Martha Cooper was born in Baltimore and has been shooting photos since the age of three when her dad gave her a camera. She majored in art at Grinnell College, taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, traveled by motorcycle from Bangkok to London and received an anthropology degree from Oxford.
Her most known personal work, the New York City graffiti scene of the early 1980s, began while she was a staff photographer at the New York Post. While shooting feature photos for the paper, she became interested in kids who were playing creatively and through them learned about graffiti writing. She began to document the culture including going to the yards to see how trains were painted. In the 1980s she joined forces with Henry Chalfant who was also photographing graffiti and together they published Subway Art.