Atiba jefferson ap gallery
[Photo by Atiba Jefferson]

Atiba Jefferson outlines his process behind the lens

Each month, AP Gallery takes a deep dive into visual culture. We explore music videos and photographs, as well as images that shape the world more broadly. Our discussions go backstage and on set, revealing the vision, the sudden inspiration or the snap decisions that helped to mold iconic images in music, skateboarding, sports and pop culture at large.

We caught up with storied photographer Atiba Jefferson, who shot the WILLOW cover at Milk Studios. Few people exist as comfortably in the space between photography and culture as Jefferson. His multifaceted career has defined the skateboarding world for decades, with appearances in Thrasher, Slap, Transworld and a range of other major magazines. He was also a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Lakers, capturing pivotal moments in the careers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. But whether he’s working on collaborations with Supreme and Converse—or capturing personalities from King Krule and Lil Wayne to James Harden and LeBron James—Jefferson always remains immersed in music.

Read more: Photographer Sean Murphy recalls shooting blink-182, Green Day and more

In this interview, Jefferson detailed his early journey into music and the posters that adorned his walls. He also talked about his biggest inspirations, his process as a photographer and his five favorite albums.

atiba jefferson
[Photo via: Atiba Jefferson

You’re a beyond proficient skater, but you also play a little piano here and there, and you hoop. Growing up in Colorado, what were the posters on your walls as a kid, and were you into all this stuff from a young age? What was motivating young Atiba to go out and do all this ill stuff?

Yes, I play piano [and] started at 21 because of Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans. [I also] hoop, but it’s not pretty. [Laughs.] The posters I had were all over the place—Steel Pulse, Bob Marley, the Police, U2, Samhain, Dead Kennedys, EPMD and tons of Thrasher mag photos. I grew up in a small town [called] Manitou Springs. My mom has great music taste, from reggae to soul. Then skateboarding taught me punk and hip-hop.

What was the first live show you can remember attending? 

My first memory was [when my] mom took me to see Peter Tosh. Then my first non-local punk show was ALL and Big Drill Car. I was blown away.

You’re super well known for your skate photography and your ability to capture professional athletes in the most candid manner. But you’re also a serious music head—what was the first show you can remember taking photos at?

I brought my camera to [a] Quicksand show but have no photos of it, [and I’m] so bummed. Jawbox and Seaweed I have photos of and also Pharcyde and Common in 1994. 

Who inspired you to get into skating and photography? What photographers would you recommend we check out?

I am still always inspired by so much new skateboarding and photography, but old-school Spike Jonze and Chi Modu, R.I.P., and skateboarding Ray Barbee, Natas [Kaupas], [Mark “Gonz” Gonzales and] Kareem Campbell. New-school photographers [you should check out are] Sandy Kim, Shaniqwa Jarvis and Petra Collins. Skateboarders [you should check out are] Kader Sylla and Tyshawn Jones

What music do you like to have on when you shoot versus when you edit? 

When I shoot, I like the energy up, so hip-hop or the Clash [or] Specials. When I edit, [I listen to] lots of jazz or new age. 

When is Atiba Jefferson going to start making music videos? 

I have done a handful for Dinosaur Jr., Turnstile, American Football, TV On The Radio [and] Soccer Mommy. A new one for Bonnie Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney just dropped. I only like to do them if I’m into the artist. 

Top five albums?

Bad Brains Rock For Light, Miles Davis Live In 1958, A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory, Cocteau Twins Milk & Kisses [and] Johnny “Hammond” Smith Gambler’s Life, but check out the new black midi [Cavalcade] and Joyce Wrice [Overgrown]. [They’re] two of my favorite records this year.

Is there anything new that you’re working on that you want to shout out? 

I’m working on a furniture collab with Modernica. I need to finish a book. [I’m] creative directing with Joe Jonas and DNCE. I have a solo record [that I’m] working [on] with Jon Theodore and Nosaj Thing in 2022. [There is] lots of stuff with Canon cameras, [and I’m] going to the Olympics to shoot and shooting for Thrasher 24/7.

This interview originally appeared in issue 395, available here