2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Martha: A Picture Story’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Martha Cooper in "Martha: A Picture Story"
Martha Cooper in “Martha: A Picture Story” (Photo by Michael Latham)

“Martha: A Picture Story”

Directed by Selina Miles

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

If you were to ask art aficionados who are the most respected and influential photographers of graffiti art, chances are that Martha Cooper would be near or at the top of the list. “Martha: A Picture Story” is a fascinating if uneven documentary of Cooper and her career. The movie keeps the spotlight focused on her professional life, since her personal life is barely mentioned.

Early on in the movie, Cooper says, “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon. It’s not the direction I was going after.” What did happen was that Cooper discovered her passion for photography early on in her life so that by the time she graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa with an art degree at the age of 19, she was on her way to breaking into the male-dominated field of professional photography.

Early on in her career, her goal was to work for National Geographic. In order to do that, she had to build up a portfolio, so she joined the Peace Corps in 1963 at the age of 20, and lived for a while in Thailand. The photos she took while in the Peace Corps helped land her an internship at National Geographic.

She then married an anthropologist, and they moved to Japan, where he had his field work. While in Japan, she took photos of Japanese tattoo artists, but those photos were rejected by National Geographic because tattooing was considered too weird at the time. After moving back to the United States, Cooper became a staff photographer at the Rhode Island newspapers the Narragansett Times and the Standard Times.

She became bored with life in Rhode Island, and decided that New York City was more her speed, so she moved there in 1977. She had a fateful meeting with Susan Welchma, who was the photo editor at the New York Post at the time, and Cooper was hired to become the New York Post’s first female staff photographer.

It was at the New York Post that Cooper took her iconic photos of New York City street life in the 1970s and 1980s, and she says she fell passionately in love with capturing graffiti art in particular. Legendary graffiti artist Dondi (who was the subject of many of Cooper’s most famous graffiti photos) is obviously mentioned. Cooper says of Dondi that he was “very articulate” and “I spent eight hours one night watching him do a piece. It was fascinating.”

There are also some current and former graffiti artists who give interviews in the movie, such as Skeme, Doze Green, Carlos “Mare139” Rodriguez and Jay “J.Son” Edlin. Also interviewed is photographer Henry Chalfant, who co-authored with Cooper the book “Subway Art,” a collection of photos of graffiti art on subways. Chalfant says that he and Cooper were rivals who decided it was better to join forces for the book. “Subway Art” was a flop when it was first published in 1984, but it developed a cult following. Because the book was hard to find (libraries had difficulty keeping it in their inventories because the book would often be borrowed and not returned), that lack of availability increased the demand for “Subway Art,” and it was eventually re-published and became a hit.

Cooper says she became so “obsessed” with graffiti art that she quit her job at the New York Post to photograph graffiti on a full-time basis. Welchma also moved on from the New York Post to become a photo editor at National Geographic, but Cooper’s work with the magazine “was not a good fit,” says Welchma. Cooper agrees, and says that her style of taking photos clashed with what National Geographic wanted. National Geographic wanted their photographers to “make photos,” while Cooper wanted to “take photos.” In other words, National Geographic wanted photos to look iconic, while Cooper felt more comfortable with spontaneous, “slice of life” photography that showed everyday people. Cooper, who is now a freelance photographer, has been working with City Lore—a New York City center for urban culture—since 1986. City Lore founder Steve Zeitlin is one of the people interviewed in the movie, and naturally, he has high praise for her.

Cooper’s marriage didn’t last, because she says that, among other things, her husband didn’t like living in New York City. She also says that she made a decision early on in her life that she didn’t want to have children, and that her friends give her emotional fulfillment. (Cooper also has a cat, who is shown numerous times in the movie when Cooper is being interviewed at her New York City apartment.) That’s about the extent of what’s said in the documentary about her personal life as an adult.

Curiously, the documentary doesn’t mention Cooper’s early influences and childhood until halfway through the movie. Growing up in Baltimore, she came from a family who encouraged her creativity: Her father co-owned a camera store with her uncle, and her mother was an English teacher. It isn’t until the documentary shows Cooper at her second home in Baltimore that her Baltimore roots are mentioned. Instead of living in a safe area, Cooper chose to reside in Baltimore’s crime-ridden Sowebo neighborhood to better capture street life. That’s not the kind of thing that most senior citizens would want to do in their golden years.

It’s in Baltimore that we see some of Cooper’s eccentricities. She shows a plastic bag full of disposed hypodermic needle caps that she’s collected in her predominately African American neighborhood. The items, which come in various colors and were obviously discarded by junkies, definitely have an “ick” factor, but Martha holds up one of the items up and says, “Isn’t that cute?”

This scene in the movie might have people thinking that Cooper is a white culture vulture who’s exploiting poor black people’s disenfranchisement for her own career. Cooper and documentary director Selina Miles don’t see it that way, because they go to great lengths to show that Cooper really does care about people of color, since there are numerous shots of her hugging people of different races and being friendly to everyone. And at an age when most people have settled into retirement, Cooper is still hanging out with graffiti artists all over the world, including the United States and Brazil.

If Cooper is accepted in urban communities that are predominately populated by blacks and Latinos, another place where she has an ardent following is Germany, where “Subway Art” was first published after U.S. publishers rejected the book. Germany is also where the documentary follows Cooper as she accompanies and photographs two graffiti artists (with their faces covered and voices disguised) who do an illegal “art attack” in a Berlin U-Banh station.

Earlier in the film, Cooper is shown doing the same thing with a group of about 10 graffiti artists (whose faces and voices are also disguised) who “art attack” a subway station in New York City. Cooper laments that New York City’s subways are now clean and “boring,” compared to the city’s graffiti heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. The documentary acknowledges that while many people see graffiti as vandalism and an eyesore, others such as Cooper see it as art.

There are some scenes in the film with Cooper going back to the original sites of her graffiti photos to compare how much the sites have been cleaned up since the photos were taken. The documentary also shows Cooper visiting Miami’s Wynwood Walls (a place for graffiti murals), where she talks about how smartphones and Instagram have made the art of photography more widespread and democratic. However, the world of professional photojournalism is still dominated by men. Cooper essentially says in the movie (because she’s living proof) that most women who succeed in photojournalism have to give up the idea that they can be a traditional wife and mother, if they choose to get married or have any children.

Even with all of her worldwide acclaim, Cooper says she still doesn’t feel accepted in the art world. That feeling is apparent when she has a somewhat awkward meeting with Steven Kasher, who at the time owned a self-titled photo gallery in New York City. (He closed the gallery at the end of 2018 to become a director of the influential David Zwirner gallery in New York City.) While considering Cooper’s photos for an upcoming exhibit, Kasher sniffs at her that he’s probably going to avoid choosing her photos of “cute children” and “smiling people” because people “don’t take those kinds of photos seriously,” but he might be convinced to use a few of those photos if she “pleads her case.”

It’s a scene like that where Cooper is shown being vulnerable and being critically judged that make the documentary more interesting than the predictable scenes of her being fawned over and adored by fans. The documentary also shows a somewhat sheepish Cooper reading old entries from her journal that describe her angst over being rejected early on in her career.

Even though the movie jumps all over the place and could have used better editing, Cooper’s passion for what she does and her engaging spirit make up for any minor production flaws that this documentary has. In the movie, Cooper shares her philosophy on how she approaches her work—and it’s a viewpoint that can also apply to how people should watch this film: “I’m not looking for ‘beautiful,’ but people making the best of what they have.”