The Doc We Need Right Now-Martha: A Picture Story

Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

Photographing city life is a little like catching rain. It takes time and patience and a keen eye to capture the people passing by, the graffiti on the walls and subway trains, and it can easily slip through your fingers. Chronicling and immortalizing life on film is the work of Martha Cooper, the subject of the documentary, Martha: A Picture Story. To look at her, Martha Cooper seems like any other woman in her 70s. She could be your mother or your grandmother, lovely and sweet. No one would suspect she is a legend and a total badass. 

The film begins with Cooper getting ready for a night’s shoot packing her gear and dressing in black from head to toe. Armed with only her camera gear, she looks like she’s ready for war. She follows a group of graffiti taggers to photograph them as they spray subway walls with paint. It’s a dangerous pursuit that could end in arrest, but she’s excited and focused, thinking only about getting her shot. 

Martha Cooper’s career as a photojournalist began in the 70s, and she’s been shooting ever since. She became known throughout the world by graffiti artists when she co-authored the book Subway Art, in which she chronicled the graffiti art on the subways of New York City. She tried to sell the photos to various magazines, but decided to publish a book of the photos when the magazines weren’t interested. The book didn’t sell many copies when first published by a publishing company in Germany but was circulated throughout the graffiti community as photocopies passed from artist to artist enshrining  her as an inspiration and godmother to artists throughout Europe. 

Cooper spent much of her career in subways and train yards, in the backyards and back alleys of New York City, and Martha: A Picture Story serves both as a history of the photographer and the city she captured. Director Selina Miles uses Cooper’s photos along with archival footage to show us the city as it was and some of the more obscure parts of city life seldom photographed. 

Cooper’s depictions of graffiti, early hip hop culture, and the subcultures of New York City make her a unique artist. Rather than following trends, she followed her instincts and the people she found interesting. Although much of her work went unnoticed in the US for years, she would touch and inspire millions the world over. 

Miles uses her camera to throw us right into the middle of the action, following close behind as Cooper and a group of graffiti artists sneak into a train yard. We see Cooper roving the streets of New York and Baltimore and competing for space elbowing her way to get a better shot at an art show. Miles’ use of a run and gun style/cinema verite approach conveys the spirit of her subject, often rushing into dangerous situations, filled with the excitement of capturing truth on film. 

This documentary is told from the perspective of Martha Cooper, her friends, and her contemporaries. Through her journey we get an account of what it was really like to be a woman in the field of photojournalism, which was largely dominated by men. We see her courage and dedication led her on her own path, not to do what was expected, but what was right. She was never embraced by the New York art scene, but she is embraced and loved by the people she inspired, the artists who picked up a can of spray paint after reading Subway Art, or the little girls who picked up a camera after seeing her arresting images. 

Like Martha Cooper’s photos, this documentary is a work of art, a chronicle of the life and times of an American artist. Selina Miles paints an endearing, inspiring, and loving portrait of a woman who is well known to the world of graffiti, hip hop, and historians of urban culture, but who should be known to the rest of the world. 

We are living in a time where images are so important. Pictures and videos on platforms like Instagram are how many of us view the world. We’re also living in cynical times where many of these images are more about commerce than art. Martha: A Picture Story reminds us of the people behind the images, the real life they capture, and inspires us to create our own pictures, our own art, and inspire others. 

Martha: A Picture Story will be available on VOD platforms in North America starting March 16th with a special Blu-ray release to follow in May.

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