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A&E Q&A - Living Walls: Martha Cooper

First lady of graffiti photography visits Living Walls

Martha Cooper began photographing the graffiti and writers of New York City's train yards while working as a photojournalist for the New York Post in the '70s. Her seminal volume Subway Art, published in 1984 with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant, offered a window into a compelling new subculture and played a pivotal role in exposing it to the world. Cooper will be in attendance during Living Walls 2012, documenting the conference and showing some of her photos at Thursday's Edgewood Block Party.

How did you first hear about Living Walls?

Monica contacted me in 2010 about the possibility of going, but this is the first year I will actually be there. Since then I've heard positive reports here and there from the street art community and heard Monica speak at Open Walls Baltimore.

How will you be participating in the event? Documenting the action and work from the sidelines or are you showing work or giving a talk?

My specialty is shooting artists at work as opposed to finished walls so I will be documenting the action. I have also put together a digital slide show of hundreds of artists working over the years and that will be projected somewhere.

What are your thoughts on Living Walls as an all-female festival this year?

I am always especially happy to document female artists, so I am really looking forward to meeting some new ones in the ATL. I wish most festivals would have a better male/female balance.

How does the mood around the subway art that you photographed in the '70s and '80s compare to that surrounding the contemporary street art that organizations like Living Walls are promoting now?

Frankly, what attracted me to graffiti in the first place was that it was an illegal art. There is a big difference in painting a wall legally and illegally. With a legal wall, artists can take their time, so the thrill of possibly getting caught is gone. However, at street art festivals, there is a greater sense of camaraderie. Artists can take the time to meet and speak with each other. Most of the painting takes place during the day instead of at night and that is much easier to photograph.

How have you seen the function and purpose of street art evolve over the last few decades as you've been documenting urban cultures?

City officials are now looking to street art to attract people to certain neighborhoods rather than seeing it as only vandalism.

What do you say to people who view graffiti only as a crime or vandalism?

I tell people to check out all the enormous ugly, mass-produced ads covering whole sides of buildings and ask why they aren't more concerned about those. Graffiti can be art and vandalism at the same time. I'm not a fan of every tag on every surface but I do appreciate illegal work in unusual spots. At least with graffiti and street art you know that a person was painting by hand, and I will always take anything handmade over mass-produced.

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!!!Next: Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson is no stranger to art in Atlanta, with numerous gallery shows and a very impressive piece in Elevate: Art Above Underground to her credit. Her deconstructed landscape paintings resemble the inside of lava lamps, which is emblematic of her style, creating psychedelic versions of actual places or things...???
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