Martha: A Picture Story (Review), by Rudy Ralph Martinez
This year, the Tribeca Film Festival curated This Used to be New York, a film series featuring documentaries charting the vast cultural changes in New York City during the last several decades. Each of the three featured films approached these changes in a unique fashion, with the Abel Ferrara-helmed The Projectionist capturing NY’s film scene through the eyes of a longtime cinema owner and Other Music, co-directed by Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller, being an ode to the much-beloved eponymous East Village record store. Then, there’s Martha: A Picture Story, Selina Miles’ documentary about famed photographer Martha Cooper (or Marty, as she is lovingly referred to by friends). I was lucky enough to get one of the last seats for the fourth and final screening of Miles’ film, her first feature, not realizing until halfway through the film that I was sitting right behind Cooper. Which, now that I think about it, is an instance rich with symbolism: While her impact has been both global and long-standing, Cooper is an unassuming subject.
At one point during the film, Cooper sums her work by stating, “My pictures are about people rising above their environment.” Though her career has spanned six decades and several continents, she is best known for documenting NY’s graffiti scene during 1970s and 80s, an era in which a generation of young street artists rose above dire material conditions and utilized the city as a canvas. Cooper’s words and her passion for NY’s long-passed visceral vibrancy is best summed up by her classic photograph of the legendary Dondi. In the photo, Dondi is seen straddling two subway carts while painting the top of one, his face displaying a sense of urgency one wears while committing an “illegal” and what was once a highly-misunderstood act. I had seen Cooper’s shot before, and perhaps you have too, but I never knew the name of the individual behind the camera. Cooper doesn’t view herself as a “legend” or an “icon,” which is why you’ve probably walked by her on the subway without batting an eye, but modestly refers to herself as a “historian.” That’s exactly what she is and continues to be: An urban historian. Miles brilliantly paints a portrait of Cooper in which she is as resilient as her subjects yet simultaneously meek. The film features a litany of interviews with artists, colleagues, and friends, not to mention Cooper herself, and one learns over the span of 81 minutes how much Cooper has meant to so many people. It’s difficult not to become emotional during the segment detailing Cooper’s relationship with the inhabitants of Sowebo, a historic neighborhood in South West Baltimore that has endured decades of urban decay but has recently felt the impact of gentrification. As proven through her ability to blend in with graffiti crews, Cooper has an unmatched knack for seamlessly fitting in with those around her, no matter who or where they are.
Even if you aren’t a fan of graffiti or photography, there’s a certain humanity undergirding Miles’ film that brought me to tears on three different occasions. Cooper hasn’t always been a successful photographer, and she doesn’t mind talking about it. This is an ideal film experience for a young artist, as one learns that a long artistic career is filled with failure and rejection, but rich with wonderfully odd experiences. You’d be hard-pressed to find another documentary, at Tribeca or otherwise, in which an old woman is running around with graffiti crews in Germany, breaking laws and celebrating with beer afterwards. My only criticism of Cooper and Miles, the latter for not addressing it in the film and the former for avoiding the subject altogether during a Q & A session, is avoiding any discussion of gentrification in NY. However, Cooper’s task isn’t to stop economic displacement, but to remind us of a time before it, an act that asks its audience what it wants from the future.