Martha: A Picture Story
by Phil Garrett
We have certain expectations when it comes to documentaries. Maybe we expect to be informed, enlightened, sometimes moved, and when we’re really lucky, taken on a journey that both surprises and delights us. That’s the case with Selina Miles’s Martha: A Picture Story.
In Martha, Miles has crafted a multi-layered film that paints a vivid portrait of photographer Martha “Marty” Cooper as an artist who is, above all else, true to herself. We also see Cooper as a pioneer from 1963 when at the age of 20 she joined the Peace Corps to be able to “take pictures in foreign places,” followed by her solo motorcycle ride from Thailand to England, her role as the first female intern at National Geographic, and her position as the first female staff photographer at the New York Post in the 1970s.
The heart of the film is Cooper’s personal history of her work in photographing the graffiti scene in New York City of the 70s and 80s, which took it from a national phenomenon to a global phenomenon. Miles goes further in shining a light on the origins of hip-hop culture, the casitas and community gardens that sprouted in vacant lots of a city trying to rebuild itself, and Sowebo, Southwest Baltimore as an impoverished neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. Cooper photographed it all and we learn that her work is virtually the only meaningful documentation of some cultures.
As Steve Zeitlin, Founder of City Lore at the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture puts it in the film, “She’s photographing these corners of life which are often forgotten about. Having that record of how people lived is important. That’s the only way that we have of transcending time. And the only thing we’ll have to go back to is the record that Marty left.”
In the early 80s, Cooper teamed up with photographer Henry Chalfant. Both were attracted to the vibrant graffiti scene and as Cooper puts it, “He was very interested in the art and I was interested in the culture.” Their combined efforts in capturing the art form gave rise to the book, Subway Art, released in 1984 by a German publisher. While the book was a financial loss in its time, it inspired generations of new artists over the following decades and changed visual culture all over the world. Many street artists refer to it as their Bible.
Miles’s filmmaking style parallels and complements Cooper’s story: it’s kinetic and holds our interest. Tight and artful editing keeps the story moving. The music score supports and elevates Miles’s telling of the story of Cooper’s work and her global impact on generations of people and artists worldwide. The contemporary footage, much of which was shot by Miles herself, grounds the film and shows Cooper at the age of 75, still shooting pictures on the street, meeting fans, and even accompanying German graffiti artists on illegal, clandestine hits, racing along with them as they tag subway tunnels and train yards.
Together, Miles and Cooper explore themes such as accepting when something has run its course, the sidelining of marginalized cultures, and the ongoing battle over what is valued as art. At one point, Cooper tells us, “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or icon.”
It’s clear from Miles’s film that she’s both.