Interview: Atiba Jefferson Talks About His GLX LA Capsule Collection


Last Thursday night at the HVW8 Gallery in LA, photographer Atiba Jefferson and Mountain Dew held a private photo show to celebrate the release of Atiba's LA Capsule Collection for Green Label Exclusives. During the event, we had a chance to catch up with Atiba to talk shop about his new GLX collaboration, his love of LA culture, and what it takes to capture the perfect photo. Check out the interview and peep a photo recap of what went down during the one night only photo show.

Photos by Mel D. Cole

How did your relationship with Mountain Dew start and for this collaboration, did you have specific photographs in mind right from the beginning?

I have been drinking Mountain Dew since I was a kid, and I have sincerely always loved the product. When I got the opportunity to shoot with them around 1999, I was really excited. Since then, I have shot with them periodically over the years, but it has always been with Paul. I have a really strong relationship with them through him, so when I got approached to do this project--Aaron Hansen had reached out to me--I was like, "Of course." I back the product, I am down to do it. When we talked about it originally, we threw some ideas around... Paul, LA... that would be the theme. The actual shots that inspired this project are the images that represent LA to me. The images that I see in L.A. Culture. Low-Riders, Wall Art, different neighborhoods... all that kind of feeling is encompassed in the collaboration. And Paul, of course.

This project is definitely a "Love letter to LA," does this paint a pretty accurate picture of how you see LA? Do you rep East Side or West Side?

As far as the show, I just went through and thought about all these things that I have photographed that represent LA to me. Hallmark LA people and personalities from Henry Rollins to Snoop to Ice Cube to Kobe Bryant and Matt Kemp. Even for the skate photos, I went through and picked LA skaters, Guy Mariano and Eric Koston, then I went even further and picked the spots. I could have kept picking. It doesn't even seem like there are 75 photos in there, but there are. There is a portrait of Paul when he was younger, that I shot around 2001 just down the street from the gallery, when I lived off Genesee and Rosewood.

In terms of what side I claim... Well, if you live on the West Side you are at the beach, so you can call me an East Sider, but real East Siders are Silver Lake and over. I live in the East Hollywood Hills, which is called Lake Hollywood.

Paul is one of your good friends. What is your favorite part about shooting someone's entire career? How have you grown as a photographer in the same time he has grown as a skater?

I consider Paul a dear friend. He is busy, I am busy, we have different lifestyles. He does a lot of contests and I don't really shoot contests, so there are times we don't see each other for a month or so, but we are like best friends when we see each other. We joke around, we mess with each other, and it's great. He is a very special person. He is one of the most generous, down to earth, funniest, coolest people I know. I can't say enough good things about him. A lot of his success comes from that. It is what it is.

You've collaborated with a few brands to create footwear. How is this project with GLX different?

It is a lot more fun, and don't get me wrong, I love all the shoe companies that I have done collabos with (I actually have a new one coming out with Emerica), but it is always a challenge with footwear. I've tried to put photos on shoes, I've done them in the footbed... I actually did a shoe years ago with DVS placing photos all over the upper, but it didn't look that good because the images were so small. But t-shirts are a great canvas, they did such a good job at displaying the photos, and the tank tops specifically look amazing. I am always around shoe and clothing designers, so I know it is hard to get the perfect result, and to be honest, it was perfect. They nailed it.

How do you feel about these t-shirts carrying the Made in the USA message? Do you think it is a step in the right direction for the industry in general?

I think having pride in where you are from and where you are at is a good thing. I drive a Cadillac and I have always been a big supporter of American industries because we have lost a lot of it. And to have these products made in America is the best thing for us as a country.

Music is a big part of your life from DJ-ing to playing in a band. What are some parallels between selecting/creating music and creating an amazing photo?

I think for me, it is one of those things that you really appreciate once you experience it. It is a blind feeling, when you are skating or making music, you don't realize how good it is until it's over, and that is the best feeling because it means that you are really enjoying it. Sometimes, I make notes for myself before a shoot and I will look at them and I try to remind myself "don't forget to enjoy the moment." When you are shooting, shooting, going, going, it is almost like blacking out. You are so focused on that one thing, which is getting that good photo, you can miss the beauty of it. Same goes for if you are playing in a band, getting through that song without messing up, or skating, getting that trick perfect, it is this blind euphoric feeling and once it is done, it is almost like a high that you catch, knowing that you were able to accomplish that.

Whatever it is, it can even be a jump shot in basketball or a home run in baseball, it is a high that you will always continue to chase. I think I haven't shot the best photo I can shoot yet because I am still searching for that. I will walk away from a photoshoot--and you have to take this as a positive thing--I ask myself what could I have done better.

How did your work shooting with the Lakers translate into skateboarding? And how has that effected skate photography moving forward?

It is all timing. The key to photography is timing. With skateboarding, just like a lot of sports, you have a fraction of a second to capture that perfect shot. Women's softball pitching was probably the hardest thing I have ever tried to shoot... the windup is just so fast. You've got to know your sport and you have to know when to snap the shot. Luckily for me, I am a big fan of a lot of different sports, so I know when, where and how to capture them.

As skateboarding literally becomes more popular than baseball, what do you think is the main difference between growing up as a skateboarder then and now?

I started skating in 1989, when it wasn't cool. Jocks would beat us up and cops really didn't like you. You didn't get chicks, you didn't get into the parties. And now, so many years later, skaters are like celebrities themselves. They get supermodels, they hang with the biggest athletes, I am happy to have seen both sides of the world, I don't think I would appreciate it unless I had experienced it. You will see skaters that are just not impressed, and you are like, back in the day this didn't happen. You'll be getting kicked out of a spot by a cop, and he will say, "Oh, I used to skate"... you didn't hear that in '89. So to me, I am proud of that, because I am a skater, I think it is an amazing thing. I think it is a positive thing and I think it is a very educational approach to culture.

Once you see the world through skating, it is the best lesson you can learn in terms of street smarts. To be a skater, you are out in the city, you are exploring. You are not just going to a basketball court, and then getting in your car and going home. You are skating all over a city. Skaters see the world from an amazing perspective because they see everything. For example, you go to South Africa, you are skating around the city, you are eating different food, you are adjusting to the environment. In any part of the world or any little city, I would go from my small town in Colorado Springs to Denver, which was the big city then--Denver was New York City to us--and that wasn't happening to all skaters in 1989. Now friends and homies take skate trips and there is so much good in that. Now you have skate camp at school, you have parents supporting it. There are skate plazas all over LA, they didn't exist when I moved here, and I think it is great for these kids to have a place to go.

Even though you've partnered with a large corporate brand for this project, how do skaters and skater-owned business like Skateboard Mag co-exist in the same arena?

I think it is all about supporting the product. If you are not into that product and don't believe in that product, it doesn't make sense. I think that goes for anything in life. A lot of skaters I see struggle with "keeping it real" in terms of product. If that is what you are into, you should be fine with that. A business person once told me, "Buy stock in things you use." It is that simple. For me, I see the positive of working with a brand like Mountain Dew because they are going to support me. As much as I am doing for them, they are going to do for me. They are exposing me to a different audience, they are giving me the opportunity to show in this gallery, they are making the clothing for this capsule happen, and that is an amazing thing. I have a photo of Paul that is on a can right now in 7-Eleven... that is a dream come true to me. I have been drinking Mountain Dew since I was a kid and to be able to go and buy that product and have my photos on it, it's unreal. If people want to "keep it real," you should do that. I think there is room for everyone to choose their own path and figure out which way is right and which way is wrong.

Who were some of your biggest influences and do you have any advice for young photographers coming up?

My biggest influences are definitely Spike Jones and Glen E. Friedman, the way both those guys shot everything. Walter Yost is a great sports photographer, Andy Bernstein--I assisted him for the Lakers--is amazing, and Grant Brittain, of course, in skating.

My advice would be to have fun with it. If you are looking to make money... it is possible, but if that is your sole motive, you might burn out. I love taking pictures, whether I was paid to do it or not. Another key bit of advice that one of my mentors shared with me was, "Don't look at other peoples photography because you will end up subconsciously ripping it off," and that is totally true. I have stopped looking at other people's work because of that. It made me have to look at photography for what it is, refine my techniques, know my craft and know what I am trying to convey. When I am in that moment, I am present in it. I know what I want to capture, and what I think will make a good photo.

What are your plans for the future? Moving into video?

Everyone wants me to move into video from a commercial standpoint. It's funny, when I moved out here I was a filmer. I worked with 16mm film, and I loved it. I play with it. The cameras are so convenient it is hard not to. Do I think that is where I want to go? I don't think so. I think I want to stick with stills. My five-year plan is to focus on the Skateboard Mag, do my commercial thing and get ready to accept the fact that I may be "too old to skate" at some point. I will always be shooting skating. I skated my mini ramp this morning. I love skating and as long as I am physically able to skate, I will shoot skating.