26 September 2023

Martha: A Picture Story

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

Director: Selina Miles, Umbrella Entertainment.

Cast: Martha Cooper, Osgemeos, Margarida Pandolfo, Sally Levin, Susan Welchman, Steve Zatlein, Carlos ‘Mare 139’ Rodriguez.

American photojournalist Martha Cooper is best known for documenting the New York City graffiti scene of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s as the boroughs of New York City burned, Cooper worked as a photographer for the New York Post (the first female on staff), seeking images of creativity and play where others saw crime and poverty. As a result, she captured some of the first images of New York graffiti, at a time when the city had declared war on this new culture.

So true is the saying about loving the job you do and never having to work a day in your life!

Martha: A Picture Story provides a glimpse into the life of “the most iconic photographer you’ve never heard of”. It was 30 years after publishing her book Subway Art – which has been called the ‘graffiti bible’ – that she discovered she’d become an unexpected icon of one of the biggest art movements in history. It was her far-sighted photography that motivated the spread of graffiti around the globe. Aged 77, her enthusiastically observant photography is well documented.

Martha must navigate her way through this vastly changed culture. The documentary by Selina Miles is vibrant, also showing how these good images of urban landscapes appeared at a time when the city had declared war on them. If you’re fascinated by the history of New York, art history photography — even graffiti — then you should see Martha: A Picture Story. Just learning about her struggles and what she had to overcome make this worthy viewing.

It presents a multi-faceted view of a woman, who didn’t just take photos; she made them. In many ways she was a trailblazer. Now you can discover the woman behind the camera, remembering a corner of life that had been forgotten. It’s joyous, inspirational and a visual treat!

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