Martha: A Picture Story

(Selina Miles, Australia/USA, 2019)


Martha: A Picture Story is an artist biopic of the sort that television loves. It nonetheless manages, in important respects, to break free of that often staid genre.


An Australian documentary that (for a change) leaves Australia altogether to zip around the wide world, it concerns Martha Cooper: an American woman who has gradually accumulated a certain measure of fame as a renowned photographer.


Director Selina Milles tags along with her subject in the present day, but also sums up 60 preceding years of her hectic experience. Kinetic and jam-packed, the film also manages to be about the big, crowded cities of New York, Berlin, Tokyo.


A choice vignette shows a snooty New York gallery owner that Cooper briefly encounters. This guy, presiding over a selection of images for an exhibition of her work, dispenses advice freely and from on high: we don’t want too many pictures of kids  … or of people smiling. Martha is sceptical and resistant, as always: why the hell not? Because, he patiently explains, her photographs won’t be taken seriously as art


Cooper – as becomes abundantly clear throughout this engrossing documentary – has always had problems fitting in and being accepted: whether by the “image conscious” staff at National Geographic magazine, by the art world, or even by fellow professionals in the photo-journalism field.


Cooper expresses her difference from these various packs in a striking way: she doesn’t make photos, she takes them. Which is to say, she doesn’t fetishise the formal elements of pictorial composition or glossy fine-printing. Nor is she nostalgic over old-style technological apparatuses and chemicals: digital equipment suits her just fine. Content is everything, she tells us. But she also has – whether or not she likes to admit it – an incredible eye.


And what content she’s racked up! Cooper is most famous for her involvement in the book Subway Art, a documentation of New York’s graffiti scene first published in 1984. That book has become an indispensable style reference – for instance, in Baz Luhrmann’s fizzler of a TV series, The Get Down (2016-2017) – but, on its initial release, the publication lost money.


Cooper went onto many other projects, often with a special emphasis on the overlooked aspects of street life and marginalised cultures in various countries. But, as we see here, the thrills of capturing illegal tagging practices claim her attention once more in the Germany of today.


The global legacy of graffiti art and (more broadly) hip hop has ensured that, to some, Martha Cooper is a revered figure – the film shows perfect strangers hailing, hugging and kissing her like a star.


But just never call Cooper an “icon” or a “legend” to her face, OK? Now in her mid 70s, she’s fully focused, active and engaged. She has an archive to die for – we see her crack open the boxes in a storage locker, as well as rifling through the filing cabinets in her home-office – and she wants her past achievements to be recognised and remembered. But she’s always fixed on the next thing ahead.


While Miles (herself connected to the graffiti art scene) obviously had total access to her subject, this portrait is intimate in a respectful, guarded way. We see Cooper laughing with friends, reminiscing over escapades, recalling the reasons her marriage ended, and expressing satisfaction at being a loner – but the work and adventure of image-taking remains the most significant matter at hand. Even the project’s feminist rallying cry is crystal-clear but understated.


Martha: A Picture Story is a superbly assembled film. Whenever I hear the idea for a documentary project, especially one of an historical or archival nature, I routinely ask myself: “Is there enough footage to make it interesting? Do these images and sounds exist, are they available?” – beyond, that is, the old fall-back of shooting some talking heads and quasi-animating some still photos (a lazy tic I cannot stand).


That’s not a problem here. Miles and her team have done an extraordinary job in unearthing every kind of pertinent image, from amateur Super-8 to TV clips and everything in-between. The montage is fast and frenetic (in contrast to the leisurely, reflective pace of, for example, Maya Newell’s In My Blood It Runs [2019]), and it’s very cannily arranged – eschewing strict chronology, it darts back and forth between diverse periods in Cooper’s career for maximum dramatic impact.


In short, Martha: A Picture Story counts high among the best Australian films of the 2010s.

© Adrian Martin June 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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