Sydney Film Festival Review: Martha: A Picture Story is a sharp look at her many pictures of you

They say if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. American photographer, Martha Cooper fits this to a tee. She has had a long and storied career capturing some fine images of urban landscapes, and changing towns and communities. Martha: A Picture Story is like a love letter to this accomplished septuagenarian.

This film is directed by Selina Miles who previously profiled Australian street artists in The Wanderers for the ABC. Miles brings a respectful and playful tone to the proceedings. She is also afforded amazing access to Martha and her inner circle. This means we get to witness interviews with Martha herself as well as her close cousin, Sally Levin, who fondly remembers some of their adventures. In addition to getting inside the artist’s head, we are also in the passenger seat to witness tagging-in-progress by German group, 1Up, as Martha shoots.

This documentary is informative because as we learn about Cooper’s influence and history as a newspaper and National Geographic photographer. It’s great that this stuff is presented in such an entertaining way. We learn about Martha’s keen eye as well as the fact that she doesn’t take photos, she makes them. Yet despite having this clear talent, she struggled to gain acceptance from the photographic community. In the early days, photography was still very much a man’s job, so it’s clear that Cooper was a trailblazer in many ways.

To hip-hop fans, Cooper is God. She co-authored the graffiti bible, Subway Artist, along with fellow photographer, Henry Chalfant. It’s amazing to see Cooper’s shots and how these have been appropriated and remixed over the years. It’s also incredible that Cooper was there to capture a cultural movement. She documented images that could have been completely lost to the annals of time were it not for her intuition and good luck with great timing.

Martha: A Picture Story is a well-constructed and visually-sumptuous look at graffiti art, tattoos in Japan and the photographer’s native Baltimore. But it’s also about so much more because this is really about a vibrant community and places that are not houses, they’re homes. Cooper’s twinkly-eyed enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and inspiring, and this film is ultimately an ode to her brilliant career.



Martha: A Picture Story plays as part of the 66th Annual Sydney Film Festival. For more information and tickets head HERE.