Martha: A Picture Story (2019) *** Tribeca Film Festival 2019

April 25th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Selina Miles; Documentary with Martha Cooper; USA 2019, 80 min.

The first feature documentary by Australian director/co-DoP Selina Miles is a portrait of American photographer Martha Cooper whose shots of street art in New York of the 1970s and 80s gained her the title Godmother of Graffiti. Even at the ripe old age of 75 she is still active in her hometown of Baltimore and European capitals Berlin, Vienna and Paris.

Born in 1943, she fell in love with the camera at the age of three. When she was working for the Peace Corps in Thailand in 1963, she shot a series of photos of tattooists at work. Returning to the USA, she faced the first wave of many rejections of her work, before she was taken on by the New York Post in 1977, having made a name for herself with a series on urban life in Rhode Island. At the Susan Welsham was the photo editor of the Post and she remembers their collaboration when women like Cooper had to literally beg to be taken on.

In New York she worked for City Lore at the time when the city was burning and President Ford pandered to national prejudice “letting New York go bankrupt rather than bail them out”. Her interest in urban and street art led her to an auspicious meeting with Edwin Serrano, who later introduced her to Dondi (1961-1998), the King of train Graffiti, whose work recently fetched upwards of $200 000 up. Dondi made an exception for Cooper, who was allowed to photograph him while on the job. The outcome was ‘Subway Art’ (published by Cooper and Henry Chalfant), which later became the bible of Street Art. ‘Hip Hop Files’ (1998) is another one of her now classic publications.

Back in 2004 Cooper travelled to Germany, Vienna and St. Denis (a suburb of Paris), where she was celebrated for her work. In Miami she took photos of the artist colony of Wyndwood Walls, where graffiti is displayed on whole blocks. Even very recently, she took up with a group of Berlin train graffiti artists, hanging from precarious positions to capture their work. Nowadays she is still active in SoWeBo, a rundown district of Baltimore atmospheric of a black ghetto where the kids make impressive pavements artists.

Martha is living proof that art can keep you young. Her bold and intrepid work goes on. AS



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