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martha: a picture story

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‘Martha: A Picture Story’ review: A charming look at one of the biggest influences on graffiti culture

Not making pictures but taking them.

Martha: A Picture Story is a fun filled documentary about photographer Martha Cooper. The film follows Cooper’s career from National Geographic magazine to her time trespassing in train yards in New York City. It is also a tale about a person who throughout her career has had an eye for the things the rest of the world did not appreciate yet.

A documentary is only as interesting its subject. Cooper has had a fascinating resume that has spanned decades, but it is the person that will draw the audience in. This becomes apparent immediately as the opening finds Cooper “somewhere in Germany” preparing for a clandestine operation. This involves voices distorted beyond recognition, masked individuals, and running from the cops.

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Martha: A Picture Story is at its best when it is looking at New York’s graffiti culture of the 1970s and early 1980s. Whereas everyone saw ugly vandalism, Cooper saw its connection to the real world. She spent time with the artists leading to an interest in the culture. She also thought it would lead to bigger jobs. This culminated in her book on street art that was rejected by every publisher in the United States.

When her book finally was published, it became an influential part of the graffiti community. (Initially, it was not a commercial hit. Those who wanted the book shoplifted copies.) In time, she helped changed the perception of what street art is. Cooper’s interest in graffiti is just one example of her being ahead of popular interests. Martha: A Picture Story covers other parts of Cooper’s life.. While working for National Geographic, she pitched doing an article on the tattoo culture of Japan that was rejected.

Martha: A Picture Story is a delightful look at how Martha Cooper influence the street art scene. Though she finds it embarrassing to be seen as an important part of the culture, the words of current and former street writers makes it obvious.  She is a charming subject who lets her work speak for itself even when no one else is listening.

Martha: A Picture Story releases on March 16

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