Martha: A Picture Story
R4 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (12th April 2020).
The Film

"Martha: A Picture Story"

When people look at the early days of hip hop in the 1980s, there were the turntables and and rappers, the breakdancing, the fashion, and the graffiti on walls and trains of New York. The music and breakdancing lived on, the fashion evolved, but for the graffiti the city was cleaned up and there are little if any traces of the spray painting culture left in modern day New York. In cinema, the documentary "Style Wars" (1983), the narrative films "Wild Style" (1983), "Beat Street" (1984) and others presented the culture on film. One person that was became an icon of the period was not a performer, not a graffiti artist, but a photographer: Martha Cooper. Working at the New York Post from the late 1970s as a photojournalist, she captured newsworthy topics through her cameras in the New York area, but she saw something much more when diving deeper into the inner city, where music and art was seen outside as a means of expression by young people.

While government officials and much of the public were disgusted by the spraypainting of public areas and public transportation, Cooper saw the artistic merit of the works, and decided to document them and publish them in the newspaper when possible. It was from there that the street artists gave her respect and also gave her unrestricted access to how the kids were able to make the pieces in hiding. From going into the warehouses where the kids practiced their craft to breaking into train yards at night, she was able to capture moments that the world had never seen before. These photos were eventually published in the highly influential book "Subway Art", which helped spread the culture to the rest of the world, for better or worse.

"Martha: A Picture Story" chronicles the life of Martha Cooper with direct input from Cooper herself, who in her 70s is still as excited about photography more than ever before. She still takes her camera everywhere, from around her neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, to wherever there is an event or a special cause. The documentary follows Cooper around as she narrates about her life and struggles, being a woman in a man's world of journalism, a marriage that failed due to her career being the dominating drive, and how no one in America wanted to publish her book "Subway Art" initially. In addition, there are interviews with graffiti artists from around the world, including some familiar names in New York as well as contemporary artists in Brazil and Germany, with some having to hide their faces around. Back in the early 1980s it was unthinkable that work by a graffiti artist could be sold at high end auctions like Banksy's works, but it was in fact due to the evolution and acceptance by the mainstream art world that no doubt was related to the publication of "Subway Art".

In the documentary, it shows that Cooper is still an icon to many, as people not only want to be photographed by her, but are marveled at the chance they could take a selfie with her. One of the more important aspects of her photography was that she was not only looking at things from a distance but going up close and personal. She befriended many of the artists as she was documenting the daily lives of people around the neighborhoods. She saw that the artform was born through the systematic and economic inequality, leading young people to either join gangs through violent means, or find a way to express themselves through art instead. Even though the golden age of graffiti is long behind, the works that Cooper was able to photograph have been preserved, and it is wonderful to see her speak and hear her thoughts in person.77

Filmmaker Selina Miles was able to piece together a great documentary from newly made interviews as well as including archival footage and photographs, and it's probably the most interesting to see Cooper she is at home explaining her vast camera collection and showing her cabinets full of unpublished works, looking and feeling very comfortable. The sequence in Germany where Cooper follows a group of so called artists defacing a subway station on the other hand, is what feels a million years away from the carefully planned and designed works of the early 80s in New York. It just doesn't have the same sense of artistic merit, and instead is a disservice to the artform, rather than an evolution of it. "Martha: A Picture Story" is much more than just a documentary on graffiti art, but one about an artist on the other side of the lens that deserves just as much credit for encapsulating a bygone era.

Note this is a region 4 PAL DVD.


Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement in the PAL format The transfer is great, with the newly shot sequences looking vibrant and bright with natural colors, and great depth. The photos in montages also look fantastic coming most likely from the original sources. The vintage video clips has its fair share of damage and blurriness, though nothing looking too terrible. Overall, an excellent looking transfer even if it is just in standard definition.

The film's runtime is 81:42.


English Dolby Digital 5.1
Dialogue is almost entirely center speaker based as it should be, while the surrounding speakers are used effectively for the background music, foley effects, and other sound effects such as added sounds of the spray cans, etc. The music and effects are well balanced against the dialogue, and there are no problematic issues to speak of.

There are some burned-in English subtitles for some minor portions in Portuguese at the beginning, as well as for the harder to hear voices.


Unfortunately, no extras are provided on the disc. There is no menu either, with the film starting when the disc is inserted, and stopping when the film ends. The trailer which is not on the disc, is embedded below courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment.


The packaging states the aspect ratio as 1.85:1, but in fact is in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.


"Martha: A Picture Story" is a great biographical piece of the most unlikely icon of the early 80s hip hop culture. It shows the fun of photography as well as how great images can pass generation and cultural boundaries with not just an artistic eye, but one that looks deeper into the subject matter. The Umbrella Entertainment DVD has a great presentation, but sadly devoid of extras.

The Film: A- Video: A Audio: A Extras: F- Overall: C+


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