Martha: A Picture Story

Martha: A Picture Story is director Selina Miles documentary feature debut. She started out her career documenting graffiti writers in her hometown of Brisbane, Australia. So it’s extremely appropriate that she would be at the helm of a film documenting the life of one of the most important graffiti photographers in the world, Martha “Marty” Cooper.

Martha Cooper wanted to be a photographer since she could remember. Her father owned a camera store, and her mother was a journalist, so her aspirations definitely made sense. After college, after being the first female intern at National Geographic, Martha joined the Peace Corps and took a good bit of photographs in Thailand. During her travels, she met her husband, and they moved to Providence, Rhode Island.

“.. traveled throughout the city in one of the most troublesome times, under the reign of Mayor Ed Koch.”

Martha didn’t like the simplicity of small-town life in Rhode Island. She yearned for the hustle and bustle of New York. When she finally moved there, that’s where her career started to get interesting. Working for the New York Post, Martha travelled throughout the city in one of the most troublesome times, under the reign of Mayor Ed Koch, who is shown on television in the film saying “I hate graffiti.” The city was bankrupt, and Gerald Ford would not bail it out. Landlords were setting apartment buildings on fire for the insurance money; people were getting robbed left and right. It was also the heyday of counterculture. Punk was born out of this chaos, of course. Additionally, street art and breakdance culture rose from the literal ashes.

Martha found a passion in following “writers” aka graffiti artists (such as Dondi, J.Son, Mare139, etc.) as they wrote on the subway cars in the train yard and in the tunnels. Several of these photographs ended up in her and Henry Chalfant’s book, Subway Art. Oddly enough, Martha didn’t realize how big of a deal this book was until many years later, with the resurgence and validation of street art by artists such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy.

“Landlords were setting apartment buildings on fire for the insurance money; people were getting robbed left and right…”

Martha: A Picture Story not only has a compelling narrative about Martha Cooper’s own life, but also the evolution of the life of American art. It’s interesting to see how society changes over the course of Cooper’s career. How she goes from a veritable unknown to something of a saint in the street art community over the course of 20+ years. It only makes sense that Selina Miles, the director of this film was involved in the street art community as well, there is really no better person to document the story of this world’s fairy godmother.

If you are interested in art history, or the history of New York, or photography, or graffiti, then you should check out Martha: A Picture Story. You don’t need to be into any of those things to appreciate the struggle that Martha goes through to get recognized for her work finally. That feeling is somewhat universal, especially for women. Regardless, it’s great to see someone’s hard work pay off. Check the film out when it comes to theaters!

Martha: A Picture Story (2019). Directed by Selina Miles. Starring Martha Cooper, Osgemeos, Margarida Pandolfo, Sally Levin, Susan Welchman, Steve Zatlein, Carlos “Mare 139” Rodriguez, Doze Green, Skeme, Jay “J. Son” Edlin, Henry Chalfant, Steven Harrington, Jeffrey Deitch, Joshua Smith, Steven Asher, Akim Walta.

7 out of 10 stars

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