Martha: A Picture Story (2020): Selina Miles’ Inspiring Docu of Trailblazing Woman

Martha: A Picture Story is an affirming and inspiring story of a trailblazing woman, who’s still very active and creative at the age of 75. 

As such, it addresses the issue that senior women remain a vastly underrepresented demographic group in media.

Director Selina Miles debut feature is an expansion of her previous work in the art  community which includes the viral street art video, ‘Limitless’. 

An icon of the street  art movement, Martha Cooper is a tiny, grey-haired figure running alongside crews of masked graffiti artists. 

In telling Martha’s story this film examines the way we document our lives, whether  through the application of spray paint to a train carriage, posting a selfie online, or by publishing a historic book. 

In the 1970’s, as the boroughs of New York City  burned, she worked as a photographer for the New  York Post, seeking images of creativity and play where  others saw crime and poverty. As a result, she captured  some of the first images of New York graffiti, at a time  when the city had declared war on this new culture.  Martha and her co-author Henry Chalfant compiled  these images into the book Subway Art. However, the  commercial failure of the book forced Martha to leave  graffiti behind, moving on to document many other  hidden cultures of New York. 

Two decades later, Martha discovers she has become a  legend of the graffiti world, a subculture that has become a global movement. Subway Art became one of the most sold (and stolen) art books,  photocopied and shared by graffiti artists for decades. 

At 75, Martha finds herself navigating a  culture vastly changed. The small community born from  struggle and adversity, has grown into a commercial  industry fueled by the rise of social media. Now every  new piece of street art is immediately uploaded, and  crowds line up for selfies in front of popular works.  Martha struggles to find her place in this new world,  driven by a passion for capturing the creativity that  helps people rise above their environment. 


The serendipitous way in which this film came into  existence is not unlike the way in which Martha  came to produce her defining work in Subway Art.  Like Martha, I was in the right place at the right  time–a woman, a filmmaker, one of few directors with the relationships needed to properly access the graffiti world, and personal connection to Martha  developed by working alongside her to document street art and graffiti around the world. 

As a photographer, Martha’s consistency and  perseverance over her five-decade career has forged  enduring relationships with many of her subjects.  Every interviewee, from graffiti writers in Berlin to  curators in New York City told me the same thing– “anything for Martha.”  

The world in which Martha Cooper began her career,  prior to the information age, is unrecognizable today,  and never to be repeated. This film, and Martha’s fame, arrive at a point in history where the value of  photographic documentation is at risk of becoming  diminished even as it becomes more popular and  accessible. 

I believe that Martha’s story can work to dispel some of the myths of what it means  to be an older woman and send a strong message that  women deserve to remain relevant, important and  worthy of visibility, regardless of their age. 

I hope this film can offer some lessons about blazing  your own trail, reassuring our audience that it’s never  too late for your true life to begin. I hope that the  audience can find inspiration in Martha’s story, and be  encouraged to look deeper, closer and more softly at  the world around them–Filmmaker Selina Miles