Opens: November 28
Genre: Arts documentary
Duration: 82 minutes

Like all outstanding documentaries, the ones we remember, Martha: A Picture Story is about much more than what it seems to be about on the surface.

Martha: A Picture Story

It can be most obviously described as being about a photographer who documented the hip-hop graffiti spray-painted across New York’s trains and walls in the late 70s and early ‘80s. But if that’s all there were to it, I wouldn’t be reviewing it here and it might not have won the Audience Award for best documentary at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

What makes Martha work so well is that it paints a multi-layered and intimate portrait of an inspiring and unique veteran woman artist who has spent her career taking risks and winning respect in a work scene dominated by males. Her name is Martha Cooper. She’s now in her 70s and at the time of filming was still professionally active.

Cooper’s photos of graffiti-art (or plain graffiti, as some will prefer) fits into a life-long practice of documenting the cultures of the urban poor. One telling sequence concerns her photos of “casitas”, colourful shacks built on waste ground by and for New York’s Puerto Rican community, the kind of subject that many other photographers would overlook.

One of her most telling comments is that she doesn’t like photographing boarded up buildings or street trash, but always looks for the colour and the energy of the locals as they set about trying to transform their world and rise above circumstance.

Australian first-time director Selina Miles roams far and wide in unearthing her subject’s history and captures a woman who’s warm and easy to like. While Cooper can be illuminating about the hurdles she has faced as a woman – a magazine commissioning her to photograph trainee Olympic athletes told her to “look for cleavage” for instance – her life practice has been to push ahead regardless and to laugh at the absurdity of prejudice.

This film can proudly be added to the fine documentary portraits of photographers including Vivian Maier and Bill Cunningham released this decade.

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