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Martha: A Picture Story

As vibrant as its engaging subject, this Australian-made doco explores the life and legacy of New York-based street art photographer Martha Cooper.
By Sarah Ward
November 28, 2019
By Sarah Ward
November 28, 2019

UPDATE, January 5, 2021: Martha: A Picture Story is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube Movies and iTunes.


Is Martha Cooper the Bill Cunningham of the street art world? That's a big call, we know, but as Martha: A Picture Story shows, it's accurate. What he did for New York street style — immortalising it with obsessive devotion and sharing it with the world — she did for graffiti. And she's still doing so, there and around the world. That dedication has made an impact. Street art was considered a scourge when the Maryland-born Cooper moved to the Big Apple to chase her shutterbug dreams, but, as she traversed the five boroughs taking pics for the New York Post in the 70s, she was drawn to NY's colourful, creative murals. And so she filled reels of film with images, got to know the scene's major players and chased tag-covered trains all over town.

As Martha: A Picture Story also documents, her efforts helped shape the medium. Before Banksy became a graffiti phenomenon, Cooper's was the name on every artist's lips. Thanks to her 1984 book Subway Art, co-authored with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant, Cooper gave street art a how-to guide. It initially sold poorly, but made its way through the scene via black-and-white photocopies that were passed around and coloured-in by hand by aspiring taggers. Now, 35 years later, she's considered a rock star due to the seminal text. Brazil's Os Gemeos (twin brothers Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo) are famous in their own right, but they buzz with excitement when they mention Subway Art. As seen in this Selina Miles-helmed documentary, Cooper's recent book signings — where fans flock for her signature — paint a similar picture.

Making her full-length debut, Australian director Miles has found the holy grail of factual filmmaking: a subject with a lengthy and captivating history, in a field with broad appeal, who hasn't been given their due by the wider world. As an overview of Martha: A Picture Story, that's too cynical, though; nothing about this film, its exploration of Cooper's career and influence, and its loving showcase of her photos is anything but authentic. Cooper herself invites genuine fascination and wonder. Her no-nonsense attitude and her evident enthusiasm are contagious, and Miles willingly catches that disease. This is a crowd-pleasing doco, winning the audience award at this year's Sydney Film Festival — but it inspires wide smiles and warm feelings solely because Cooper's pics are so exceptional, her passion so palpable and her impact so immense. Indeed, if a documentary about the now-septuagenarian didn't cause this reaction, it wouldn't be doing its job.

Cooper's entrance into the film couldn't underscore the above point better. It's 2018, she's in Germany, and she's eager to snap photos of the 1UP crew in action. Carrying her gear on her back, she follows them into the night as they tag their way around an unnamed city — including in subway stations and by sneaking into train yards. Shot on the ground in a suitably shaky style, these sections of Martha: A Picture Story feel vivid and alive. Clearly, that's how doing her job makes Cooper feel, too. As the film begins to step through the photojournalist's past in a more traditional then-to-now format, these opening scenes mirror events that come later in the doco but occurred earlier, when Cooper did the same in NY with its street art bigwigs of four decades ago.

Threading together its absorbing chronicle, Martha: A Picture Story keeps finding riveting details to fill its frames, such as Cooper's early quest to work for National Geographic, her globe-trotting efforts to try to make that a reality and her book on Japanese tattooing. The photographer's tale is also intertwined with both gender and class politics, which gives it added significance — she was the first female intern at Nat Geo, she notes, and she's well aware that she has spent years giving visibility to art, neighbourhoods and people that many would rather overlook.

It's an informative and engaging delight to hear Cooper reflect on her experiences, and to listen to her friends, relatives, colleagues and admirers relay their parts of the story. But, in a doco like this, the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words was always going to ring true. Martha: A Picture Story features home-video footage and personal photographs collected over the years, taking viewers through the various stages of Cooper's existence. When it lets the photographer's own snaps take centre stage, however, it makes the case for her greatness one image at a time. Whether she's documenting graffiti on both a broad and intimate scale, focusing on NY children and their makeshift toys, or turning her lens towards the reality of the Baltimore streets, where she grew up, she trades in candid portraits of life, art and personal expression. And, as only the very best pics do, they beam their glory and importance for everyone to witness.

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