“Martha: A Picture Story” is one of the most joyous 80 minutes you will experience in a documentary. In 1970s New York, photographer Martha Cooper captured some of the first vivid images of graffiti appearing on the city’s subway carriages. Decades later, Martha realises she’s become an unexpected icon of the street art world – her visionary photography having inspired the spread of graffiti around the globe.
Reminiscent of “Searching for Sugarman” in that it uncovers a great artist having an incredible influence on a cultural scene without knowing, the documentary also taps into another very worthwhile trend – recognising female pioneers that never got their due.
I sat down with the subject of the film, Martha Cooper, and director, Selina Miles, when they were in Melbourne for the Melbourne International Film Festival. We discuss Martha’s anthropological approach to photography, the excitement of illegal graffiti runs, the social obligation to graffiti artists, pigeons, and how it feels to be a 70-year-old woman standing in front of thousands of young men chanting your name.
One of my favorite moments in this film is when you were on tour for the hip hop files in Europe …
Martha: When everybody’s yelling? And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’
These young males. They are just so excited for you – like you’re a rock star – and you just don’t see that dynamic often. That must have been pretty interesting experience.
Martha: I mean it’s been repeated in bigger and smaller examples. Like, even last night, it was very cute the way these guys show up and they are hugging me and everything. It’s just very sweet.
Selina: Guys with neck tattoos.
Martha: Yes, I know. Yes, tough looking guys, I know.
The children you never knew you had.
Martha: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, and I didn’t have to worry about raising them. I can just enjoy them briefly and send them on the way [laughs].
This film really gave a different perspective to the subway graffiti in New York in the 1980s. Many years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and he uses the example that [Mayor at the time] Giuliani solved crime in New York by getting rid of the graffiti. And I remember being like, ‘It was really so simple? Well he seems like an expert, I guess, fits the broken windows theory [that visible signs of crime create an environment that encourages further crime and disorder].” And then watching this film, there’s a whole demographic that just gets ignored in that narrative, and I think that’s been debunked since anyway – because crime went down across the board in New York regardless of whether the area had graffiti or not. Watching this film really highlighted the other side – that there was this whole scene of talented people who were using non-violent crime to express their creativity since they had no other outlet, and they were never recognised for it.
Martha: I mean, the thing with graffiti was, it was ugly. The subways – not so much the outside. People weren’t even really looking at the outside, but the insides were covered with layers of it. And it just looked like the city was out of control. So they use that as an example of crime and they were going to clean it up. And they did clean up, but luckily, they didn’t do it before it managed to spread around the world.
Thanks to you.
Martha: If they had come down and gotten rid of it earlier, who knows? You know, if they had really eradicated it, like in the late 70s or earlier, maybe it never would have spread. Well, it would not, because we wouldn’t have been able to finish photographing the big pieces that were attractive to people around the world.
That’s true. That’s a nice way of looking at it too – that they had a window of time in which they were able to do this and make a mark. Obviously your photography never stopped after the subway graffiti went away and you moved on to other subjects. I love the overarching theme of your photographs – of people rising above their circumstances. Is that something that you set out to do or is it just on reflection that was what you were attracted to?
Martha: Good question. No, I didn’t say, ‘Let’s go see who’s rising above today?’ [laughs]. No. It was more about being creative. And being creative when you don’t have much. At first I was interested in the kids who were making their own toys and after I met a boy who was drawing, I began to look at graffiti. And then I took a similar point of view, but no, it wasn’t defined. Well, that’s not me. I just like people being creative, because so many people don’t seem to be. They’re out shopping. They’re buying their stuff as opposed to customising their stuff.
I understand this was originally going to be just a little 10 minute documentary?
Selina: Yeah, that’s how I sold it.
Yes, but there’s so much great footage and I’m sure there’s a lot that you left on the cutting room floor as well. Did it just naturally expand as you discovered more and more, people wanting to talk and take you on illegal graffiti runs?
Selina: I think it was actually the producer Daniel Joyce. I’d been at it for about a year at that point. Not full time, but for a couple of weeks in New York and then we met up in Berlin, and then I went to Miami. And so …
Martha: Yeah, I don’t think you told me …
Selina: … I was just following you around.
Martha: I don’t remember when I learned that it wasn’t in the be just the little one.
Selina: No, there wasn’t a moment. But I do remember for that first year being, not lost, but just not knowing where I was going, and knowing that I needed more. I would just want to get this little bit of the story and I need to get this, and having all of this material and being like, ‘Shit’, like, ‘What am I going do with all this?’ And people would ask and I’d say, ‘Oh, maybe it’ll be a half hour’ or ‘I don’t really know’. I was going by instinct, which is the great thing about doing it on your own, you can do that.
And then when I met Dan and explained it to him, he was like, ‘I can see this being a feature’. And I was like, ‘Ooh, how? How does that even work?’ And he really encouraged me through that process. And I think for him, the thing – because he’s a producer of documentaries and has done lots of other features before – that it was that three act structure that was there in Martha’s life; entering this crazy world of graffiti in the 80s and stepping over that threshold; getting drawn into this world and then making this big book and then failing; and then 20 years later, miraculously, it actually did work.
Well it didn’t fail, it just got stolen a lot!
Martha: Well, it did. It didn’t lead to any of the things that I had been hoping it would lead to. And it didn’t get reviewed, for example, there was one kind of negative review, which I have somewhere. Like, snide review. And, yeah. The covers all fell off on the first edition because they didn’t bind it well. And it wasn’t in stores because kids kept stealing it, so, it might have been under a glass case or something. And then of course there was no internet, so it wasn’t like people were talking about it online and it just wasn’t out there. So, yeah, maybe it didn’t completely fail, but it just, it was kind of, yeah.
Selina: Well, that was the point where you kind of moved away from graffiti …
Martha: Yeah, I’m like, well, I need to make a living and they had sort of stopped being able to do the trains about the same time.
Now, you’re in Melbourne talking about it.
Martha: Exactly. No, I mean, it’s wonderful that it got revived.
And Selina, your background is quite unusual , definitely not a direct line to documentaries – you had the very viral video and then into commercials. Is that, again, instincts just taking you on that path?
Selina: Yeah, I never could have imagined that we’d end up here.
And I understand that half of the people working on this film were female, is that right?
Selina: Yeah. It depends if you count all the past crew. We tried to have as many female heads of the departments as we could.
I guess, like many industries, this is one where female representation probably isn’t that strong. And subject wise as well, it’s not that common to follow a female story throughout their lifetime. As an audience member it was very refreshing. And I loved your approach to taking photographs, really getting to know people and become part of the community. An anthropological approach to photography…
Martha: Well I was married to an anthropologist… I was married for 15 years. So, I met a lot of anthropologists. I heard a lot about anthropology[laughs]. So, I did like a bit of an anthropological approach. And I had at one time thought that I wanted to be an anthropologist, but then I found out how hard it would be. I had to get a PhD in order to do it, so, that was way too academic.
Not that photography was easy… I love your quote at the beginning of the film when you say, “I wanted to do whatever it takes to be a photographer and it turns out…”
Martha: “…it took a lot.” It did.
So, it’s not like you took an easy path.
Martha: No, especially in New York. A lot of competition.
Yeah, exactly. And I guess the scene now versus then, with so much access to photography and equipment it’s probably even more so.
Martha: I would say, yeah.
Do you feel like now you’re sort of getting your dues a little bit for all your body of work now?
Martha: Not really in the photography world, but I’m getting there. I’m more in the street art graffiti world than I am in the photography art world. There is a bit of a crossover.
Have you had a chance to check out much of the Australian street art scene?
Martha: I was in Melbourne… What year was I in Melbourne?
Martha: I think she knows more than I do [laughs]. It was some kind of graphic design festival. And I did check out a lot of it then, but when we just arrived this morning here, so not yet. But I hope to.
Melbourne is a city that’s embraced the street art thing to the point that’s probably becoming a little bit commercial.
Martha: I have no objection to graffiti and street artists making money from their work. Artists need to make money. They need to live. These people have amazing skills, so go for it. I say.
Yeah. There’s a good story about a Banksy that was here and someone painted over it and said, “Banksy woz ere”. I was like, ‘there you go. That’s the evolution of that street art – nothing stays forever.’
Martha: I do remember when I was here before, there was a little rat Banksy that they took me in that alley. I don’t know if it’s still there.
Selina: I remember that there was one that, it was called “The Little Diver” or something. And so, he would put up a piece and then the council would cover it with perspex to protect it, and then somebody came along with silver paint and put it down to destroy it. Yeah … It’s an interesting discussion. It’s like why does that piece get perspex and none of the other ones… because it’s valuable, I guess, because of tourism. There was a bit of controversy with AC/DC lane at one point, I remember, because there were people that would consider like sleeping there, like sleeping rough. And a lot of those people were actually artists who were painting, the graffiti writers, and somehow ended up homeless for a moment and they were sleeping there. And the council were evicting them and kicking them out of the lane. And it’s kind of like, well, you’ll keep their artwork, and imagine the tourism dollars that that brings into the city, but the people there and they have to go somewhere else, you know?
That is not an anthropologist approach to the city. I think it really came across as well, how immersed and respected you both are in this area. Everyone spoke so naturally in the film and seemed really excited to be part of it. No one else really could have made this film except for you two.
Martha: Well, I do think she was the ideal person to make it.
Selina: Thank you.
Because Martha, you’d been approached before, hadn’t you?
Martha: I had. But Selina knew the culture.
You get that sense straight away when the film opens with the graffiti run with the 1UP crew. Definitely captures the excitement, I think, when you’re doing something like that.
Martha: That’s it, you want to capture that excitement in the film because otherwise it doesn’t really explain why any people would go to great lengths to do the illegal graffiti, or why we would even be interested, but when you have that kind of fear of being caught.
Yeah. And the time limit, you know, they have to be quick. You can’t perfect it over a week.
Martha: Yes, pretty quick, exactly.
And how was the reception when you premiered the film in New York? I understand a lot of people flew in to see it?
Selina: It was such fun. People flew in from Copenhagen …
Martha: … It was great. Yeah, people flew in all over the place.
Is it bizarre watching your life on film?
Martha: Yes. I mean it’s sort of embarrassing …
Selina: I think for me the Tribeca premiere was exciting, but it wasn’t too bad because about a month and a half before I’d come over and shown the film to Marty and that was terrifying. I’ve never been so scared of anything …
Martha: Oh, really?
Selina: And originally it was just going to be me, and her, and Dan the producer, and then we were like, ‘Oh, let’s bring Sally’, And Susan, Susan was going to come in. And then my boyfriend at the time came. And one of his friends and his friends, and they’re all friends …
It sounds like a proper screening.
Selina: And then the next thing that was like 10 or 11 of us and then we had this little theater and I got up and did this little talk, and then I sat down. I sat next to Sally and Martha was like few rows down, and my heart was just so scared. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’
Martha: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Selina: So terrifying. I remember your face when you turn around you went, ‘It’s good.’ Because if you didn’t, that would have been very sad.
Martha: It is that. It is that. The only things I don’t like about it and it had nothing to do with Selina and everything to do with – I didn’t like my hair. [laughs]. And I have a funny way of walking. Kind of like, I didn’t know I had until I watched the film. I’m like, ‘I don’t like it.’ You see yourself in ways that you didn’t really know.
What are you working on at the moment?
Martha: I always have a lot of little things going on, but mostly I’m on the street art circuit. I have just been invited to a festival in Brazil, northern Brazil where they want to paint the sails of boats. And I got excited about that because it wasn’t walls. And, just like two weeks ago, I had photographed a lot of kids with pigeons and I met a street artist who paints pigeons, beautiful big portraits of pigeons, and we collaborated. And it was photography about pigeons, but then also her painting the pigeons. And so, we just did that in Eugene, Oregon. And so now, I revived my pigeon interests. A lot of people love pigeons.
Didn’t Mike Tyson love pigeons? That he got into boxing in the first place because someone killed his pigeon and he couldn’t stop them and so he wanted to learn how?
Martha: Yes, that was it! We went over to see his pigeons in New Jersey, and we did not meet Mike, but she painted on his building, on it’s wall. We toured his place, he’s got a great big coop on the roof.
“Martha” A Picture Story” is in Australian cinemas 28 November.