Prove your humanity

Martha Cooper, a name synonymous with street photography and graffiti; a general badass when it comes to sticking it to the man and chasing adventurous aspirations. This documentary is about her extraordinary life that has in no way slowed down, even at 76 years of age.

The film opens with a street view of São Paulo, providing a bustling soundscape of car horns, kids laughing, and the distant rumble of a lively city. It is here where the movie begins with an interview of OSGEMEOS and their mother, retelling anecdotes of the mischief that they would get up to when they were younger. OSGEMEOS is Portuguese for ‘The Twins’, a pen name for the dynamic duo, Otavio Pandolfo and Gustavo Pandolfo, who run the city with the unique graffiti style. Old friends of Cooper’s, they’re referred back to throughout the film as they animatedly acclaim the woman and her photography.

Martha Cooper graduated school at 16 and completed an art degree at Grinnell College at just 19. From there, she taught English in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer and rode all the way from Bangkok to London on a motorcycle, because that’s the kind of thing Cooper would do. She then went on to complete an anthropology degree at Oxford and continue travelling the world.

On assignment in Japan, Cooper was intrigued by a man covered in tattoos. She followed him and fell in love with the art that they would cover their bodies with. This ignited her passion for artistic photography, as seen in her book, Tokyo Tattoo 1970.

She would then go on to follow this passion, being sent to different countries all over the world by National Geographic and the New York Post to capture stories from riots to pollen, where instead she would diverge and discover something even better, like breakdancing. Another of Cooper’s books, Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979-1984, documents the break-dancing scene that she was the first to photograph in the ’80s. She was at the forefront of disseminating this subculture from the Bronx to the world.

An intriguing part from towards the beginning of the documentary displays the contrast between what graffiti in New York City used to look like compared to what it looks like now. The film crew follows Cooper as she goes back to the same place where she took her iconic pictures of the subway trains zooming overhead, splattered with art and tags. Nowadays, they’ve been painted over in a subdued, sedated grey. The selection of these scenes serves as a caution to the audience, to take back the creativity and uniqueness in their lives that the government and social media may suppress.

A large part of the documentary focussed on her time in Baltimore. Cooper bought a house there in the mid-2000s in Sowebo, despite the amount of trash lining the streets and the neighbourhood’s not so great reputation. What intrigued her most though, was the people of Sowebo and how they could make something out of nothing. This is what separates Cooper from being just a graffiti or hip-hop photographer; she is an anthropologist.  She captured “people rising above their environment, in one way or another” and how the children were so happy playing with so little. This was what brought her back time and time again; the children. It only seems fitting then that it was a child that led her to the king of the graffiti, Dondi.

Through Dondi, Cooper was introduced to a whole new underground culture that was looked upon as a by-product of crime but was instead a creative expression of the people from that era. It was because of him that she met other graffiti artists and began accompanying them on secret missions to tag the town. The documentary films one such mission as they race through the underground dressed in black, spraying the walls of the subway station with a giant smiley face, the whole adventure covert and timed down to the minute. There is a sense of frantic energy and excitement to the whole scene which I guess aptly describes the thrill of graffiti and the reason why Cooper has been addicted to photographing it for so long. She’s been running through the city and capturing these operations for 40+ years and it doesn’t look like she will be slowing down anytime soon.

Most people have heard of Martha Cooper because of her most famous book, Subway Art; “the graffiti bible”. She produced this collection of photographs in conjunction with her friend, Henry Chalfant, who was more interested in the actual art of graffiti while she focused on the culture surrounding it. Initially, the book didn’t sell very well which was disappointing for Cooper and Chalfant but in an interview with OSGEMEOS, it is revealed that although it may not have made the most amount of money, that volume was the handbook of the graffiti generation. People would photocopy the pages and proceed to colour them in in order to replicate it and if you owned an original copy, you guarded it with your life. “It was a pot of gold…it was like a dream,” OSGEMEOS’ mother recounts in her interview, describing just how precious Subway Art was to her boys.

The documentary interviews a whole range of people from all walks of life who have relationships with Cooper and are dear to her. This was particularly cleverly laid out in one section as graffiti artists Skeme, Doze Green, and Mare139 were on camera. It placed videos of their current selves beside film from when they were younger; a nostalgic comparison of then and now and how little has changed, in some cases.

It is lovely to see her laughing away with old friends throughout the documentary. They sit there together and recount the days in which they got up to all sorts of trouble or the crazy adventures that they’d go on, a mischievous twinkle in their eyes. Affectionately, they’ll call her “Marty”.

Steve Zeitlin spoke of Martha Cooper very fondly and praised her work with the utmost admiration. He touched on how “she photographs the corners of life that are often forgotten”, an important message on how there is always extraordinary in the ordinary if only you look close enough to see it.

Martha: A Picture Story is screening at Luna Leederville Thursday 28th November – Sunday 1st December