'Martha: A Picture Story': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Courtesy of Martha Cooper/Dan Brinzac/Tribeca Film Festival
A joyous look at a career devoted to witnessing everyday life.

Documentarian Selina Miles' feature-length debut celebrates Martha Cooper, the unlikely chronicler of New York's subway-graffiti heyday.

Recent festival docs about influential photographers Jim Marshall, Jay Maisel, Garry Winogrand and others introduce men who are obsessive, prickly and opinionated, some of whom might prefer to be hermits if they didn't have to go out in the world to take their pictures. Selina Miles' Martha: A Picture Story is the other side of the coin, showing it's possible to create a history-making body of work while being an absolutely lovely human being. Eighty of the happiest minutes documentary-lovers are likely to spend in a theater this year, the film shows the debt that the graffiti and street-art communities owe to the septuagenarian artist, who co-authored a landmark book on subway art in 1984 and is still going strong.

We meet Cooper in 2018, "somewhere in Germany," as she dons an all-black ensemble to do something she first did four decades ago in the Bronx: trespass in train-yards with vandals. With a backpack full of camera gear, she tails members of the 1UP graffiti crew, whose exploits include dashing into subway stations with paint-filled fire extinguishers, leaving giant smiley faces on the walls and racing out before terrified bystanders understand what's going on.

"This was like vandalism times ten," Cooper cheerfully exclaims as they make their getaway. But she didn't set out to memorialize the exploits of nonviolent criminals: At 20, in 1963, her goal was to be a National Geographic photographer, and going to Thailand for the Peace Corps seemed like a good starting point. When that assignment ended, she got a motorcycle and made a solo trip from Southeast Asia to England, developing a portfolio that earned her a coveted internship at the magazine. (She recalls with amusement that she was their first "girl" intern.) Living in Japan, she became fascinated with the local tattoo scene; for some reason, Nat Geo didn't want that story, leaving Cooper to publish Tokyo Tattoo 1970 as a book decades later.

Miles' debut doc careens happily through these early years, interspersing Cooper's work with home movies and family pictures of an always-smiling, ever-curious young woman. (Present-day interviews with Cooper's cousin Sally Levin, who has traveled the world with her, prove she didn't leave her intrepid spirit behind when her hair turned gray.)

Cooper wound up in New York City in the late '70s, landing a gig at the Post. She shot everything from perp walks to Studio 54, getting assignments in all five boroughs; in between news events, she spent time on the streets of poor neighborhoods, photographing children at play and admiring the toys they made out of other people's trash. Soon she realized kids not much older were creating an entire art scene.

Martha tracks the photographer's fascination with the graffiti artists that worked in the '70s and '80s. She trespassed in order to watch them paint on parked trains; she found ideal perches in the city to shoot the finished cars as they crossed elevated tracks. A few of the graffiti writers she shadowed sit down with Miles, recalling how important it was to their scene that this white lady took the time to see how they lived, instead of just parachuting in for pictures and fleeing.

Cooper and like-minded photographer Henry Chalfant gathered enough photos of full-car paintings to make a book, but nobody in the U.S. wanted to publish it. A European press published their Subway Art in 1984 — sales were dismal, but it was a hit with shoplifters. It became a treasured resource for future generations of street artists, especially after the MTA started its crusade against train graffiti, scouring cars clean as soon as they were painted. (Brazilian street-art stars Os Gemeos recall how they got their hands on a pirated copy of Subway Art, made of black-and-white photocopies, and meticulously colored the photos by hand, studying all the work.)

Though this is what would make Cooper a star decades later, she moved on quickly after subway art dried up in New York. Miles shows how the varied subjects she'd focus on in later years related to a persistent humanist impulse; she took the time to see, and to photograph, aspects of city life others ignored. It is gratifying, in the film's second half, to learn how her work eventually resonated with fans around the world. But it's clear Cooper would be doing her thing today either way, whether the world caught up to her or not.

Production company: Projector Films
Director: Selina Miles
Producer: Daniel Joyce
Executive producers: Jennifer Peedom, Matt Burke, Josh Braun
Directors of photography: Selina Miles, Marcus Autelli
Editor: Simon Njoo
Composers: Adit Gauchan, Vincent Goodyer
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (This Used to Be New York)
Sales: Emily Rosenthal, Submarine

80 minutes