Martha Cooper is best known for Subway Art, the groundbreaking 1984 book on which she collaborated with Henry Chalfont. There’s a paradox in this, because when she was first photographing the work of New York City’s graffiti artists it was widely dismissed as vandalism, and now that it’s appreciated (by both critics and the public) the walls and trains of the Big Apple are relatively bare.
But subway graffiti is only one of many objects of her fascination, as this engaging documentary makes abundantly clear. Born in Baltimore, she had a stint in the Peace Corps in Thailand, began her photographic career at the New York Post and moved on to National Geographic. Over the ensuing decades she’s focussed her lens on hip-hop, street life and urban folk culture in its myriad forms, tattoos in Japan, latter-day graffitists in Germany … The unifying theme, as an admirer puts it, has been “people rising above their environment in one way or another”. That and an apparent cheerful disregard for danger and personal risk.
Martha Cooper comes across here as a likeably strong, self-contained and independent individual, who doesn’t care about posterity – “I’ll be dead” – and who refers modestly to taking rather than making photos because subject matter is the key. But therein lies her brilliance: having the ‘eye’ for a vibrant and photogenic subject, and always at a crucially opportune moment. At 76 she’s still quite a trooper, and this film – a visual document of visual documents – is an interesting testament to the massive archive she’s accrued in a lifetime of restless creative energy and observation.