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Review: ‘Vanguard x Vans – Martha: A Picture Story’ @ Arnolfini ★★★★★

She loathes the epithets ‘legend’ and ‘cultural icon’ but focuses on being constantly in touch with her sources of inspiration even during the advancing years of her life.

By Milan Perera, Arts Writer

She loathes the epithets ‘legend’ and ‘cultural icon’ but focuses on being constantly in touch with her sources of inspiration, even during the advancing years of her life. Martha Cooper is a photographer extraordinaire who travelled the world far and wide to capture scenes of street art as it happened, whether it was graffiti, Hip-Hop or breakdancing.

The Australian director Selina Miles’ robust documentary movie, ‘Martha: A Picture Story’, matches the dynamic energy of her subject matter and the elements that are vital to her craft.

The screening of this highly anticipated movie was held at the no-less iconic Arnolfini in Bristol which has been a shining beacon for contemporary art. The movie got off to an inauspicious start with apparent defects in the sound system. Ten minutes into the movie, it duly commenced from the beginning with no hiccups along the way.

The almost full capacity audience responded fittingly to the narrative with occasional laughter, clapping and hissing as they saw fit. Martha does not believe in ‘making photos’ as she saw in her colleagues, but in ‘taking photos’ without the annoying intrusion of a photographer.

By listening to her frequent collaborators it was evident that she does not treat her subject matter with a detached aloofness like a pathologist would treat an ‘exhibit.’ She deeply cares for the people who she met along the way and one regret in her life is not being able to be in touch with those individuals as much as she would have liked.

New York, the city that never sleeps, went through a phase of death, destruction and debt in the early 1970s. The burgeoning middle class made the flight to leafy suburbs while the already squeezed working class was sent on a collision course with a loss of staggering 500,000 manufacturing jobs. The crime rate soared, and the welfare dependency reached one million households.

Out of the ashes sprung forth the rebellious art movement subsequently coming to be known as Subway Art - which for many bordered on anti-social behaviour and vandalism. Martha Cooper was fearless to follow the trails of leading graffiti artists as they were running from wall to wall in a haste with spray cans.

The vivid and ebullient images she captured were carefully catalogued and issued as a large compendium of street art. As opposed to other mediums, graffiti is a breathing and living art form where one piece would remain no more than a few days and hence the importance of capturing them, lest they are lost.

For the artists of proceeding generations this volume of Subway Art has been both a holy book of devotion and a point of reference. The brothers Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo, widely known as Os Gêmos in the street art scene, acknowledge Martha Cooper as the biggest influence in their careers. In the beginning of the movie the two brothers show their black and white photocopies of prints from Subway Art. It is the type of book which is leafed, borrowed and copied multiple times until the sleeve and the spine dissolve.

Martha Cooper’s love for the people she encounters is genuine and evergreen. In her own words they are ‘doing their best with what they have’ and ‘rising above their environment.’ The cult of celebrity has little appeal to her and she takes great delight in capturing the visceral and vivid scenes of street art which were widely derided by the establishment as a sign of degradation and decay.

She identifies the creative genius behind a quickly sprayed graffiti or a breakdancing troupe consisting of ‘dangerous juveniles.’ Her appetite to capture more art remains unabated.

In the mid-section of the movie, Cooper was seen to be accompanying a group of street artists in Germany who were heavily disguised under balaclavas and masks. Cooper seems to be revelling in the danger and uncertainty surrounding her work.

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Cooper is a curious hybrid of a Rock Star and a ‘super cool granny.’ Wherever she visits, she is showered with unbridled affection that entails countless selfies, book-signings and bear hugs. She remains stoical when art dealers passionately disagree with her regarding what makes a good photograph.

Martha Cooper does not sit on her laurels and even in her late 70s she is eagerly anticipating further assignments. Her secret innocent wish is to be made into a Google Doodle one day. Considering her enormous contribution to contemporary art that day may not be far off.

The enjoyable cinematic experience was brought to a crescendo with the appearance of Martha Cooper herself in the centre stage for a short Q & A. She acknowledged the wealth of street art in Bristol and was seen engaging in a passionate conversation with the local street art collective. What a trailblazer.

Featured Image: Milan Gregory Perera

Have you checked out much of Bristol's street art?