Review: ‘Martha: A Picture Story’ shares the joy of a septuagenarian NYC street photographer

A 1977 Martha Cooper photo of Times Square, New York City, from "Martha: A Picture Story."
A 1977 Martha Cooper photo of Times Square in New York City, from the documentary “Martha: A Picture Story.”
(Martha Cooper / Utopia)

As full of life and color as the street art she shoots, Martha Cooper is the coolest person you’ve never heard of — and if you have heard of her, you probably still think she’s the coolest person. The vibrant, absolutely vital documentary “Martha: A Picture Story” introduces audiences to the now-septuagenarian photographer as she’s suiting up for a night out, strapping on a backpack with her camera to tag along with taggers, keen for the perfect shot and to avoid getting caught.

In her feature debut, director and cinematographer Selina Miles chronicles the life of Cooper, beginning with her early years being the only “girl” intern at National Geographic to the first woman on staff as a photographer for the New York Post. If her biography ended there, you’d be impressed, but “Martha” shares how her story develops, as she becomes the most notable graffiti photographer in the early days of the movement in the 1970s and ‘80s. The ephemeral nature of her subject makes each image feel that much more special.

But it’s not just her great eye that makes her such an icon on the street art scene; it’s also her unique nerve that led to her photograph so many iconic moments for fans of graffiti, taking risks as she takes photos. Her infectious glee also sets her apart, a glee that Miles makes clear throughout the skillfully edited film, moving among Cooper’s photos and interviews with the photographer herself as well as her acolytes. Cooper’s presence makes this 82 minutes of pure joy, a celebration of an artist who became a key part of the culture she captured.

‘Martha: A Picture Story’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Virtual Cinema and VOD