If Bill Cunningham was the chronicler of New York City’s fine and fashionable, Martha Cooper is the photographer who gravitates toward its down and dirty: graffiti writers, b-boys, hip-hop musicians, tattoo artists, and everyday people making the best of urban blight. As such, Martha, the documentary that premiered last night at Tribeca Film Festival, acts as a wonderful complement to Bill Cunningham New York, showing the creativity and stylishness of New Yorkers who weren’t necessarily being welcomed onto runways and red carpets.
“Always, my pictures are people rising against their environment in one way or another,” Cooper says in the film.
I mention the Cunningham documentary because Cooper, who is in her mid-70s, will inevitably remind you of him: she enjoys living alone in her apartment packed with prints, slides, and books, and has a sort of winking, cheery optimism and love of the city not often evident in New Yorkers of her age. Where Cunningham was single-minded about capturing the fashion on New York’s streets, Cooper is obsessed with capturing the art on its walls.
To the casual observer who has noticed Cooper snapping away every time a new mural goes up at Bowery and Houston, she might seem like an adorable oddity: “How cute! Grandma is into street art!” But Martha makes clear that Cooper is not a grandma– she carved a fiercely independent path in life– and not just a chronicler of graffiti, but also an influencer. Director Selina Miles got everyone from Shepard Fairey to Jeffrey Deitch to Brazilian street artists OSGEMEOS to testify to the way Subway Art, her seminal 1984 book chronicling the New York City graffiti scene, inspired young artists around the world to pick up a spray can.
Some of these artists even ended up painting tributes to Cooper’s early photos of street life in Alphabet City and beyond, which were gathered in a 2005 book, Street Play. These photos– of schoolkids playing amidst rubble, piles of trash, and abandoned cars and buildings– are perhaps her most heart-rending. Her iconic photo of children climbing the fence of an empty lot is to 1970s East Village what Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” was to the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Some of these shots were the basis of a group tribute show in 2014.
This isn’t the first time Cooper’s work has been celebrated on film; it was also featured in Cheryl Dunn’s 2013 doc, Everybody Street. But because that film had Cooper sharing the spotlight with various other NYC street photographers, the breadth of her career got short shrift. Miles, an Australian filmmaker who has also been shooting street art for years, original intended to do a short about Cooper, who often goes by Marty. That quickly changed. “Once I got to New York, Marty welcomed me into her studio and I saw the material that was there and I realized immediately that it wasn’t going to fit into 10 minutes,” Miles said at the post-screening Q&A at Cinema Village East.
Martha is a nice overview of its subject’s career, from taking photos while riding across Thailand during her stint as a 20-year-old in the Peace Corps, to becoming the first “girl” intern at National Geographic, to traveling to Japan where she shot tattoo artists, to arriving in New York City in 1977. At the age of 34, she became the first female staff photographer at the New York Post, where she was told to “look for cleavage” while photographing Olympic runners.
At one point, the Post sent her uptown to cover a supposed riot and showed no interest when she came back with fantastic shots of breakdancers. This indifference and even rejection from the gatekeepers of the mainstream art and publishing worlds would be a running theme in her career. Though Subway Art is now considered the bible of street art, she and co-author Henry Chalfant couldn’t get it published in the United States, partly because editors didn’t want to encourage the blight of graffiti. When it was eventually published by British imprint Thames and Hudson, they lost $3,200 on it. (Cooper has since published numerous books with PowerHouse and others.) Similarly, the on-screen interaction she has with a gallerist who’s showing her work is positively cringeworthy. While selecting photos, Steven Kasher tells her they should avoid cute children and smiling subjects, since “people don’t take those pictures as seriously.”
For all of her success, it’s clear Cooper doesn’t feel as at-ease in the white-box environment as she does when she’s, say, trespassing in a train yard with German artists 1UP. Cooper told last night’s crowd that she was “so uncomfortable in front of the camera” during the documentary’s making, “and I don’t think I got any more comfortable as we went along.” But she did identify one highlight: “any time we had to do something a little bit illegal made it a little more exciting.”
As exhilarating as this train-yard footage is, Cooper confesses that she hasn’t done such a thing in a while; these days, she’s more likely to be found photographing sanctioned art such as that of the Coney Island Walls in Brooklyn. Asked by an audience member whether the Wild Style days might make a comeback, she said, “I’m not looking for this to at come point come back… better to remember it the way it was. New York is a wonderful place for things to happen and I’m sure there’s all kinds of things happening all over the place in New York, in clubs and on city streets. Another worldwide movement may be in the making, but it’s not going to be graffiti; it’s going to something completely different and I probably won’t be the one photographing it. But I’m sure there will be photographers who are already doing that.”