In 1970s New York, photographer Martha Cooper captured some of the first images of graffiti appearing on the city’s subway carriages, in a time when the city saw it as just vandalism. Decades later she learns she’s become an unexpected icon of the street art world, and now at 75 she must navigate her way through her fame and the changing culture around graffiti.

Martha: A Picture Story as a documentary is not ground-breaking in how it’s structured or presented but it does cover an interesting woman’s life and passion. Seeing how Martha Cooper stumbled onto the world of graffiti in a time when no one who wasn’t involved in it was interesting.

I think Martha: A Picture Story is a great example of the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Different graffiti artists talk about how different people would come and take photos of what they were doing, or to watch how young Black and Hispanic men were street dancing in front of graffiti but then leave again just as quickly. Martha was different. She was interested in the culture, and the people, and wanted to learn about them. She became a regular fixture on the scene as graffiti artists trusted her and she managed to take photos unlike any others. She appreciated what they were doing and wanted to document it because she found it fascinating and thought others might too.

It’s amazing how many photos she took. She has storage facilities full of boxes of film, slides and photos, and at the time, very few people were interested in them. Especially in America where graffiti on trains was seen as dirty and a part of gang culture, when in actual fact graffiti was a way for young men to get away from gangs.

The things I found most interesting about Martha: A Picture Story were aspects of her life that seemed like a footnote compared to the story of her street art photography. Naturally that’s what the film is about so that’s the focus but it’s the mentions of the ways she was made to feel she didn’t belong as a photographer that I found most interesting. Like how she wasn’t seen by her peers as a “real photographer” because of the subjects she chose to photograph or how she was more famous and appreciated by lovers of graffiti than “proper” art and photography curators.

Martha: A Picture Story is perhaps more interesting to those who are passionate about graffiti and the culture surrounding it, but it does offer an insight into how a photographer thinks and how that parts of life she deems worthy of capturing, others may not. Or at least not for a few decades.

Rating: ★★★½

Directed by: Selina Miles

 

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