Interview: Iconic Documentary Photographer Martha Cooper

From Baltimore to Berlin, a new documentary traces the lesser-known aspects of a legendary career

Premiering at 2019’s Tribeca Film Festival, Sydney-based Selina Miles‘ documentary MARTHA: A Picture Story is a thoughtful, smart and tender portrait of a woman whose influence reaches across the world. Best known for the “graffiti bible” Subway Art and Hip Hop Files, documentary photographer Cooper captured now-iconic images from NYC during the birth of the aforementioned cultures—and, unlike others, was invited in to learn about and photograph the people and scenes. But her work stretches far beyond New York.

In 1970, Cooper traveled to Tokyo and created a series of photos on traditional Japanese tattooist Horibun. She worked for National Geographic and the New York Post. A few years ago, she developed a beautiful series called Soweto/Sowebo, a collection of photographs from Southwest Township, South Africa (Soweto) and South West Baltimore (Sowebo) that are exquisitely paired as diptychs.

Filmmaker Miles originally intended the documentary to be under 20 minutes, but it became a full-length feature that outlines Cooper’s career (and personal life) from her internship to struggling to fit within the NYC photo scene and carving out a niche that’s all her own.

Miles and Cooper met years ago while working at Tahiti’s ONO’U festival. Each year, they’d meet there to shoot various projects. Miles tells us, “We would be in our little rental car driving around Tahiti together. It was a  good bonding experience. Of course, I had known who she has for years and years. She’s an icon. So as much as I was trying to play it cool, obviously it’s pretty exciting to be spending time with her.” From there, she asked Cooper if she’d be the subject for a short documentary. In light of its premiere, we spoke with Cooper about the film and what makes a “good” picture.

How did you feel about being the subject rather than the photographer?

Well, I thought a 10-minute video sounded just fine! As it got longer, it got more difficult for me. It was just being on the other side of the camera is not the most comfortable thing for me.

At the same time, were you excited to share some of the facets of your career that people aren’t aware of? 

That was actually something that I was hoping for—and it worked out that way. I said up front, I don’t want it to be just about street art and graffiti. Because a lot of people don’t know all the other things that I’ve done.

And there’s a lot of other stuff. From Baltimore to Berlin, Tokyo… You seem to be very welcomed by the communities that you photograph. Is that something you work really hard at? Or does it come naturally?

Well, I don’t go into a place with my guns blazing. I’m cautious about shooting. I think the Peace Corps kind of put me into that mindset of trying to adapt to somebody else’s culture. So I just tried to be—I mean, it’s impossible to be invisible. The ideal thing would be to just blink my eye and not have to have the camera. But I don’t go in with a ton of equipment and I don’t hit and run. I try to talk to people and come back and give them a photo. There’s no secret. There’s a lot of hanging around and not getting good pictures. That has to happen in order to get good pictures.

The longer that you spend with individuals—like Dondi—they must take you to places that those who “hit and run” are never going to see. 

Exactly. It’s just a matter of establishing trust and people let you know some things that they might not otherwise want you to photograph. And if they don’t want me to photograph something, then I know I don’t try to sneak photos.

So, do you always ask permission?

Hmm. [laughs] If it’s an ongoing something or other, then I probably would. But if something’s happening like that [snaps], I’m going to shoot and ask later. You know, I would say not missing the shot is more important.

I don’t just wander the streets and snap pictures

Which segues a little into the question about technology. How do you feel about everyone having a camera in their pocket? Is it positive that it’s more accessible for people or is it diluting the craft somehow?

Well, it makes me feel like my pictures are not as unique as they might have been before everybody had cameras. One interesting thing is people asking, “Are you sure you don’t have any pictures of you with graffiti writers?” And I’m like, it’s before the age of selfie. We didn’t find any pictures. All that time over the years and years of doing this. Not one where I was just posing there with these guys, which I could have done anytime—except that I was the only one that had the camera!

I’m a total convert to digital photography, which wasn’t so easy. I mean, I’m on my phone as much as anybody else. I’m taking pictures and posting on Instagram. But what I do, it’s not so random. I mean, I call myself a documentary photographer. Generally when I take a picture, I’m specifically documenting something that fits into some predetermined category. I don’t just wander the streets and snap pictures.

Speaking of predetermined categories—can you address the idea that you’re not part of the photography world in New York? Did you ever think that there was something simple you could have done or perused to be accepted, but it would have worked against your passion? 

I’m still trying! [laughs] Seriously. I still might do it. For example… traveling around the world to the street art festivals. There are hundreds of them all over the place—and it’s fabulous. I love going and I get to travel. But I’ve only been invited to one photography festival. There are as many photography festivals as there are street art festivals. And at that one photography festival, I felt more at home. Because they were all people that were dealing with the same kinds of things that I do. But I’ve never been invited to another one. So I’m kind of hoping there’s still a chance. I would like to cross over into that world.

There’s an interesting scene in the documentary with Steven Kasher, when he says, “This just isn’t a good photo.” The audience doesn’t see the photo, and it’s obviously so subjective. But is there something for you that makes a “good” photo?

First of all, it’s really weird—to go through probably millions of photos to get something that I feel was a good photo. It doesn’t happen all the time. I don’t know if it’s just a combination of so many different things: the light and the color and the subject matter and what they’re doing… You know, I can’t get it down. For me, when I’m like, “Yes!” I think that is the quest. That’s what keeps me going: trying to get that good photo.

So that’s a “good” photo, but what about a good photographer? Curious? Adventurous? Were there certain things that were instilled in you that made you a great photographer?

I was always given a great amount of freedom. As a child, I could play anywhere I wanted basically—as long as I was home by dinner. I did not have “helicopter parents.” Remember, I was born in 1943. We lived in the suburbs and I could go play in the woods with my friends. We didn’t have cellphones. I think that has a lot to do with it. My parents gave me freedom to go to any college I wanted—as long as I could get accepted. Then I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I was only 19, and they didn’t they never said, “No.” I got a motorcycle and drove across Asia and they didn’t try to stop me. They trusted that I could do this. So I grew up with the feeling that I could do this. If you think you can do something, you do it. And if you fail, you fail.

And failure isn’t the end of the world. 

Failure is never the end of the world.

MARTHA: A Picture Story is screening at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.