BY DEAN MOSES
Art: panting, writing, drawing, music, sculpture, photography, and more. Art comes in many forms, and the artists who dedicate their entire lives to their passion can be as inspiring as the work they produce. There is a big difference between those who pick up a craft as a hobby and those who devote every fiber of their being to what they love, people like Martha Cooper.
The Tribeca Film Festival is known for showcasing incredible narrative features, yet this year its documentary selection was perhaps even greater than its collection of dramas and thrillers. Martha: A Picture Story was one such documentary and my personal favorite film of the festival. We follow photographer and title subject Martha Cooper in present day while she chronicles her life story up to this point. It could be due to the fact I am also a photographer, it could be Martha’s infectious personality, or it could be her passion and the incredible life she has led, either way this film oozes charm and creativity.
This piece is fantastic because it offers so much to so many. If you are interested in the history of cities like our very own New York, through Martha’s work we get to travel back in time and experience the streets how they were in the 1970s: the poverty, the hardships—a graffiti smeared wasteland. But we are also shown smiling faces, children playing with crude toys made from bits of wood, and all-around happy times. It is this juxtaposition of contrasting moments and astounding use of subjects, lighting, and composition that not only shows us history, but places us within it. Martha is currently in her 70s and still going strong, her zest and desire to capture striking moments has only grown with age. It seems she is still growing as a photographer while also firmly knowing who she is as an artist. She talks about working for publications such as National Geographic, yet she left because they wanted the photos staged instead of capturing them naturally. In my eyes this is what makes an artist an artist, doing what you have to do to follow your own vision.
Again, this brings us back to that word: art, and another focus of this film. Let me ask you, the reader a question. Is graffiti in and of itself art? Personally, I believe so—although many may disagree—we have one artist documenting another artist’s work. You see in the 1970s graffiti was everywhere above and below ground, including on the sides of subway trains themselves, which Martha made it her mission to shoot as they whizzed by. This may sound like some strange paradox—artist following artist—yet when we ride the subway today and see only shimmering silver train cars, whether you agree with the actions or not, the vivid colors that once adorned our transports is irrefutably an important part of our culture’s history and inspired a generation. Her photos of subway art appeared in a book of the same name: Subway Art. This book has since made Martha a superstar to graffiti artists everywhere, so much so that when the book was first released people would share photocopies of her work so it could find as many hands as possible. Throughout the film Martha travels back to spots where she shot famous moments all those years ago and recreates the photos from the book with a modern day atheistic.
Not all of the stories found herein are happy, however. Sadly, despite all she has accomplished, when shooting today Martha experiences issues with other photographers who stand in front of her while she is shooting. Either it is due to a lack of respect for her age or a sense of self-entitlement, it is sad to see her treated this way. As a photographer myself, I can empathize with my peers treating one another with disrespect. It would be so easy to work together yet everyone fights to get their own, perfect shot.
Martha: A Picture Story is inspiring, motivating, and entertaining. Martha Cooper has lived a remarkable life but, most extra-ordinarily of all, in her 70s Martha is now her prime, living her best life. Let’s hope that we can all be so fortunate.
The Spring Creek Sun attended the film’s premiere, and although we were not afforded the opportunity to speak with Martha Cooper or Director Selina Miles, I took my own camera and captured the event’s festivities, including a smiling Martha who raised her Cannon to my lens. I share a passion for pictures with Martha, so it was an honor for me to shoot a legend.
Photos by Dean Moses