Martha Cooper © Dan Brinzac

Martha Cooper might get mobbed in hip-hop and graffiti circles, but in the world of fine art photography her reputation isn’t so stellar. The phrase “couldn’t get arrested” is ironic, given that the nimble septuagenarian is still accompanying spray-painting crews as they trespass in railway yards at dead of night.

In an upscale gallery, a director sniffs: “That one’s just not a great picture,” as he browses through her studies of street life in “Sowebo”, south-west Baltimore. “We’re going to be avoiding cute children,” he instructs her. “Smiling people.” It’s an approach that’s totally alien to Cooper: “Always my photos are [about] people rising above their environment,” she says.

Selina Miles’s affectionate tribute begins with a 20-year-old Cooper motorbiking solo through east Asia in 1963, snapping all the while with her Rolleiflex. Despite netting an internship at National Geographic, her career was slow to take off. In 1977, aged 34, she became the only female staff photographer on the New York Post, forming a vital alliance with picture editor Susan Welchman.

The job involved “all that tawdry stuff” — crime and celebrities. It was Welchman’s hunger for “weather shots” — fillers for slow news days, involving kids playing with fire hydrants or shoppers battling snowstorms — that led Cooper to tramp fearlessly through the meanest streets of the five boroughs, documenting the poorest inhabitants. 

One of her Post pictures had as a backdrop a wall painted by Dondi, a revered graffiti “king” of the era. On meeting him, Cooper began to document the shortlived masterworks painted on the outside of subway trains to the fury of the authorities; she quickly became accepted in this secretive subculture.

But being ahead of the curve in terms of subject matter didn’t help her career: monochrome studies of the tattooing scene in Japan met with professional indifference, and graffiti art was viewed as ugly vandalism. As a result, her groundbreaking book Subway Art, compiled with Henry Chalfant, was rejected many times before being picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair. A commercial misfire, it passed into legend as the art works and the scene it recorded disappeared. 

Cooper was back to square one, failing at a commission about pollen for National Geographic, where her approach — “I just like seeing something and shooting it” — fell flat. Rather than being inspired by the greats, she loves amateur snapshots: “The presence of the photographer is minimal, it’s all about subject matter.”

Reflecting the ups and downs of a career at last heading into the uplands, the film, though visually exciting, is overlong and haphazardly structured. Miles’s seeming reluctance to impose a narrative on the material means her film ends up mostly being one picture after another. Still, at least the pictures are fantastic. 

★★★★☆

On Sky Arts/Now TV on December 1 at 10.30pm

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