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Movie Review: Martha Cooper's Impact Reaches Far Beyond Her Photos

My friend and former colleague Zack Gingrich-Gaylord did a series here on KMUW seeking to recenter our perceptions of the world of graffiti and street art. I found it incredibly enlightening in how he described the artists, their motivations, and the art form’s complex world.

One of the people responsible for our understanding of graffiti and its role in hip hop culture, especially from its early days in 1970s New York, is the photographer Martha Cooper, the subject of the movie, Martha: A Picture Story. To be sure, Cooper is one of many who helped to elevate impressions and awareness of the commonly dismissed art, but as the film shows, the publication of her photos in the 1984 book Subway Art, known by many as the “graffiti bible,” played an important role in carrying the art and culture around the world, exposing it to people who never would have seen it otherwise.

The film opens with a bang, as Cooper, now in her 70s, dresses herself entirely in black and follows a group of masked artists into the Berlin subway as they rapidly spray the walls with enormous tags. Despite the fact they could all be arrested at any moment, Cooper is clearly in her element and has no concerns about being there to photograph the work.

It quickly becomes apparent that what’s remarkable about Cooper, even beyond her amazing eye, is her willingness simply to treat people like people. Her subjects let her into their lives because she so obviously values those lives—she’s entirely sincere. At one point, we see she moves into southwest Baltimore, a very difficult part of her hometown, so she can document the gentrification she expects will happen in the coming years. Her openness to the people there results in them embracing her as a part of their lives, not just as someone regarding them as a curiosity. It’s a rare and impressive quality, and it shows us that Martha Cooper’s impact reaches far beyond her already extraordinary photos.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.