Martha: A Picture Story
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
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
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
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 ), and it’s very cannily arranged – eschewing strict chronology, it darts
back and forth between diverse periods in Cooper’s career for maximum dramatic
In short, Martha:
A Picture Story counts high among the best Australian films of the 2010s.
© Adrian Martin June 2019