Who is Martha Cooper? The short answer is she’s a 77-year-old photographer who is essentially unknown to the general public. But in the world of urban graffiti, which today is a global phenomenon, she is a legend. This is the point of the new documentary Martha, A Picture Story, directed by the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles, and first being screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The film opens with the world-renowned Sao Paulo graffiti artists Os Gemeos describing how Cooper’s 1984 book Subway Art, which she co-authored with photographer Henry Chalfont, transformed their lives. As important, the twins explain how this book, which originally had a small print run of 3,000, was extremely rare, forcing the graffiti underground of the 1990s and 2000s to photocopy it, often hand-coloring the images, and treating it as its bible.
Almost single-handedly the book launched a worldwide vogue for graffiti. And everyone in this world knew who Martha Cooper was – she was their rock star, which the doc makes clear.
The film goes on to sketch Martha’s biography, beginning with her fascination with photography as a little girl (her father and uncle owned a camera store in Baltimore) and continuing with her enrolling in the Peace Corps to teach English in Thailand, where she discovered tattoo art – an interest that would eventually result in a book about Japanese tattoos. She interned with National Geographic, which did not hire her, and then married, settling with her husband (who is unnamed in both the film and Cooper’s Wikipedia page) at the University of Rhode Island, where he taught.
There she felt stifled, both by the boredom of a small college town, and by being dependent on her husband. At that point she left him to establish a self-sufficient life in New York, and this sets forth a major theme of the film: that Cooper was a feminist, who was not only not going to be tethered to a man, but was also dead set on elbowing her way into a world dominated by men.
In New York, she received periodic assignments from the New York Post. But her obsession was photographing the marginalized in the poor, blighted neighborhoods of the 1970s bankrupt city, and revealing how the disenfranchised created meaning, often by making art, in their shattered surroundings – including the South Bronx and the East Village. This is when she met Dondi (Donald Joseph White), one of the most famous graffiti artists – responsible for painting entire trains – who in turn ushered her into the entire subculture. It eventually led to her to discovering B-Boying, as break dancing was initially called, another major underground social circle for her and a major photographic series.
But Cooper did not just photograph these alternative cultures; she became a part of them, being invited, for example, into the train yards to document the artists’ clandestine raids to tag MTA cars. She photographed all of the “greats” and their creations; and as the 1984 Subway Art went viral in the next century, she was invited to accompany graffiti artists around the world as they indulged in their surreptitious activities. The film, for instance, documents her following 1Up Crew in their Berlin escapades; the 75-year-old Cooper runs alongside the youths through subway stations and train depots.
Martha… touches on some of Cooper’s later projects, such as her chronicling the casitas (small social houses) that Puerto Ricans erected in gardens in the East Village and the South Bronx, where gutted tenements once stood; and most recently, the gradual transformation of the African-American Sowebo neighborhood in Baltimore, where Cooper herself moved to, again becoming one with her subjects.
But the thrust of the film is the subway artists of the ’70s and ’80s. It does not, however, resolve two interesting issues that it raises, instead taking an objective stance. First, the question of whether the subway spray paintings are art or vandalism – although for Cooper, it is clearly actually high art. New York mayor Ed Koch, among others, is shown expressing his disdain for their activities, considering it defacement and sabotage.
The second question that is handled objectively is whether Cooper’s pictures are fine art or just documentation, meaning photojournalism. There is one informative episode in the film where we see her sitting with her New York dealer, Steven Kasher, discussing what work to put in her upcoming exhibition at the gallery. Kasher tells her that the art market does not like people smiling, that images of people smiling are just not considered fine art – and not to put them in the show.
But we have to wonder if Cooper wants to be considered a fine artist, or if she even cares about the distinction. She herself states in the film when her pictures are rejected by National Geographic and The New York Post that she “takes pictures,” that she “doesn’t make them,” and that magazine editors want the latter. This is not to suggest she is belittling her work; almost more important for her is recording marginalized subcultures unknown to the greater world and documenting their creativity for posterity.
One of the many strengths of the film is its portrayal of Cooper’s personality. She is an extremely gregarious and kind person, with an extraordinarily buoyant temperament and an unbounded energy. And it is a tribute to Selina Miles that she so effectively captures this.
This is Miles’ first feature film. Previously, she specialized mostly in commercials and music videos, among other genres – until her love of street art brought her to do short videos of graffiti artists at work. While Martha, A Picture Story reflects the slick, concise expertise found in her earlier shorts, it relies less on the rapid editing and cinematic tricks of video, and instead comes across as a highly professional documentary work – explaining why it was indeed selected to be a part of the Tribeca Film Festival 2019.