One of the great joys about films is the way that they end up
surprising you. Take the joyous Japanese food-western film Tampopo for example. On its surface, it’s just a story about how to
make the best ramen, but director Juzo Itami manages to make you understand
exactly why great ramen is good for your soul. He manages to do this by
savouring the creation of the dish, guiding the audience through each step,
explaining the importance of each ingredient, and how it is prepared. Then, in
a joyous climax, he presents the dish in all its glory, and as the audiences
beams with joy from the triumph of shopkeeper Tampopo, our mind immediately
conjures the smell and taste of the dish itself.
Such is the power of cinema that it can immerse you
completely in the world of the story you’re watching by the mere guidance of
direction, editing, subject, and music, all of which create an electric energy
that makes the intangible, tangible. When I watched Tampopo for the first time, I left the cinema feeling full and
content, like I was properly nourished.
I had a similar feeling when I watched Selina Miles essential
documentary Martha: A Picture Story.
No, not nourished like I’d eaten a big meal, but instead, the feeling of
vibrancy and energy that you comes at the end of a heart pounding concert by
your favourite band. I had never given much thought to what the vibe or energy
of painting with graffiti would be like, or even to what the cultural
importance of the art form was. I had just assumed it was like every piece of
art I’d ever seen – it existed as just another variety of art, albeit a greatly
Miles takes the life story of Martha Cooper and through
propulsive, energetic editing we’re given the feeling of electricity that comes
with the art of graffitiing. Not just the adrenaline from the illegal aspect of
it, but also the energy that being expressive in such a vibrant manner brings. It’s
this kind of filmmaking that works to reflect the energy the subject. It can be
hard to convey how much something means to someone, but Selina Miles manages to
use all of the tools of cinema to immerse you in the world of Martha Cooper, making
you feel what she sees in the world of graffiti.
Martha Cooper is a photographer, and the co-author of the
influential book, Subway Art.
Alongside fellow New York photographer Henry Chalfant, Martha documents the
graffiti work of the seventies and eighties. Miles goes to great lengths to
show how both Martha and Henry integrated themselves in the community of
graffiti artists, earning their trust and friendship by showing that they weren’t
there to rat on them, but instead to archive their historical importance to the
city of New York. Their photography took place right at the height of the ‘War
on Graffiti’, a campaign run by mayor John Lindsay, a leader who sought to condemn
this unauthorised art, all the while neglecting the other aspects of what was
dragging New York further into bankruptcy.
Art was cause for celebration amongst the graffiti community
around the world, working as a bible for many who engaged with the art. The glossary,
photo essays, and discussions about the art helped make the process of
graffitiing its own universal language. In an amusing moment, Martha comments
on the fact that the book was so poorly received when it first landed that it
cost them money to produce. In turn, the scarcity created by this weak
reception meant that those who found the book and cherished it deeply ended up
photocopying it to give to their friends. In a moment that shows how tender and
supportive the graffiti community is, we see two artists shading the black and
white photocopied book as a way of learning the colour gradients of the artists
they’re learning from.
Before we reach the Subway
Art part of Martha’s life, we get to see her upbringing and attempts to
break into a male dominated industry. Martha talks about the frustrations of
being pushed to photograph women training for the Olympics, and being told to
focus on taking photos of their cleavage rather than anything else. This was,
and in many ways, still is, an industry focused on sex, rather than the subjects.
Which is not to say that Martha wasn’t interested in bodies.
Rather, she was interested in documenting how people expressed themselves. During
her time in Japan, she documented the varying tattoos and tattoo artists at
work. These photographs were intended for National Geographic, but when they
declined the chance to publish them, Martha put them out in the book Tokyo Tattoo. Amusingly, Martha did
work with the magazine later on, documenting manual pollinators in Japan who
hand pollinated flowers due to a lack of bee activity, but the subject matter
didn’t engage her enough to continue on.
This is an aspect that I grew to admire and love Martha
Cooper for as the documentary rolled on. Her level of interest in a subject was
paramount for how she would approach the material. If she wasn’t interested, then
she wouldn’t do it. In many ways, Martha realised the importance of her work
early on, knowing that there was great value in documenting the untouched side
of history. Nobody was going to the Bronx in the seventies and cataloguing the
lives that were happening there, and certainly nobody else was going there and
recognising the level of talent that came with the creativity that poverty helped
Graffiti in the seventies was about making yourself known. It
was traditionally the artists name and street number, and in many ways, it was
an outlet for them. A way to run away from problems at home, and to be
themselves. Graffiti was a symptom of the problem, but not a problem itself. Scratch
that, to call it a symptom feels too derogatory. It was a solution to the problem.
In this way, Martha knew how to get right to the heart of the
culture of a city, to recognise the value in something that a city was working
to obliterate. The New York of today is sanitised, with subway trains devoid of
graffiti, their windows free from art, and yet, the commissioned artworks by
big name artists like Shephard Fairey, Ben Eine and more, that cover the walls
of buildings and alleyways wouldn’t exist without the wealth of graffiti
artists who came before them.
When 5 Pointz was demolished in 2014, the modern equivalence
of the removal of history took place. Building owner Jerry Wolkoff was eventually
ordered to pay $6.7 million in damages to 21 artists whose work was on the 5
Pointz building. Public art is a transient medium. It’s a world of temporary
masterpieces, put up one day, whitewashed or demolished the next. This
temporary nature of art doesn’t make the art any less important, and certainly
doesn’t remove the cultural value of places like 5 Pointz or the train system
of New York, which is why the way Martha collects these art projects work to
honour their fleeting existence. Her photography cements the artists in
Martha always worked in service of the subject, as is mentioned
in the film, ‘the presence of the photographer is minimal, it’s all about
subject matter’. She gathers the history of the fringe dwellers, the people who
would otherwise may be forgotten by time. As Martha grows older, so does the
world around her, and the areas that once housed lower income families are now
under threat of gentrification. Here, Martha documents the changes of cities, of
towns, of the way people live.
Yet, to document boarded up buildings or ruined streets is a
cheap and easy act. The art of taking photos of people trying to exist, people
living and celebrating life however they can, is where the respect and
admiration for humanity comes to fruition. Yet, when Martha works with a
gallery in New York to celebrate her art, she is told that there should be
little to no photos of smiling faces, with the memorable line, ‘people just don’t
like a smiling face, they just don’t’. Which is fascinating when you cast your
mind back through history and realise the dearth of people smiling through
history (besides, you know, the Mona Lisa that is). What does it say about the
world that people respond to images of poverty more than images of happiness?
This isn’t the documentary to reflect on that, which isn’t a
complaint, it’s more of a compliment. There is so much operating within Martha: A Picture Story that I honestly
can’t wait to dive into this again and explore the tendrils of history that are
touched on. For a ninety minute documentary, there is a lot going on in every
frame. The energy and excitement that Martha has for her career is infectious,
so much so that when she joins a group of graffiti artists breaking into a
compound in Germany, her grin is so wide that you can’t help but break into a
There is a clear affection for the people of the world who
she shares the community with, and they clearly admire her a lot too. At book
signings and concerts, the mere mention of Martha Cooper brings the house down.
The adoration is glorious, and makes Martha’s mild concern that she’d never be
the subject of a Google doodle quite cute. It doesn’t matter that Google may
not recognise her, because the respect of a corporation like that means little
in comparison to the glory that the art community brings.
Honestly, I feel quite spoilt for choice when it comes to documentaries about art this year. One of my favourite films of the year, It All Started With a Stale Sandwich, covers the value of public art in Australia, celebrating the importance of the curator. Then there’s Looby, the little seen film about Aussie artist Keith Looby, an eccentric yet gloriously talented artist who rankles more than a few feathers. And finally, Selina Miles Martha: A Picture Story celebrates the work of the artist who documents history. It’s a circular piece, with Miles documenting the documenter, making this a love letter to both Martha, and the art that Martha has documented.
I adore this film. I have fallen head over heels for Martha
Cooper, whose presence is so enjoyable and infectious that I can’t help but
feel better off for having spent ninety minutes in her world. And gosh am I
grateful for the presence of a director like Selina Miles on the scene. Given
the wealth of talking head documentaries that feel staid and routine, it’s exciting
to see someone employ a reflective lens to their subjects, bringing out their
energy in the way their story is told. The way Selina intimately understands
her subject, and knows exactly how to present that story, makes me beyond
excited to see what her body of work will look like over the next few years.
To bring back that comparison to Tampopo, this is a film that’ll make you feel full of joy. It’ll
make you feel alive again, like you can go out and celebrate all that is good
about the world. I’m still beaming from having watched this a week ago, and I
cannot wait to revisit it.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Easily one of the
best films of the year, and one of the finest documentaries as well.
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