Anthony Acosta Photographer Interview
I first met Anthony Acosta about 15 years ago when he was an up-and-coming skater and I was a local hack photographer. Since then, Anthony has positioned himself on the other side of the lens and matured into one of skateboarding’s premier photographers. So we thought we’d pick his brain a bit on the subjects of photography, the Vans video, and more.
Let’s start with a little skate background…where/when did you grow up skating? And what was your history of sponsors?
I started skateboarding in 1990 or something like that in Norwalk, California. I would see kids around the hood ollieing up curbs and doing kickflips, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was the only kid from our OG crew that didn’t quit skating and I eventually found other guys that skated that were a little older and had cars and video cameras. I eventually got shop sponsored and made a few parts for local shop videos. I rode for Dynasty for a few months and even had an ad with them. But they had some internal problems that eventually led to them going out of business. I got on Puma shoes from Donger too, that was rad! I was on Deca flow and enjoi flow after that for a few years through my friend Tony who was the team manager over there. That was as far as I made it in skateboarding.
An ’02 issue of Skateboarder mentioned you riding for Pink along with Marc Johnson, Jerry Hsu, Louie Barletta, Luis Cruz, Ricky Espinoza and Tony Rodriguez. The team was listed but said that what Pink would manufacture had not yet been decided. What was that all about?
Haha Pink, I totally forgot about that. That was Tony the TM’s idea. It was just an inside joke that turned into an idea that almost turned into something, but didn’t. I remember seeing that printed in the mag and laughing!
So I know you did a little homie filming for 411VM back in the day, but how did you get into photography? What made you want to be or think you could be a photographer?
Yeah, I did a little homie filming for a bit. But that was just for fun. I never wanted to be a filmer, I hated filming lines! As for photography, it never ever crossed my mind. Being a skater, I was always around photographers and I always thought it was awesome. But it just seemed too expensive and out of reach for me to ever even consider. But one day, my photog friend Joe Toreno needed some assisting help on one of his shoots and asked if I would be willing to give him a hand. I said yes and pretty much carried all the equipment and helped moving lights around and stuff. It was easy and pretty fun. He kept hiring me for other shoots and I started learning so much very fast. I loved it, I wanted to be a photographer.
And who would you practice shooting with? That was back in the 35mm days, so I imagine there was a trial and error process. How long was it before you got a photo published? What was the photo?
Joe gave me my first 35mm camera and I would take it out skating and would try to shoot skating and stuff. I eventually took a b&w photo class at a local college and learned how to process film and print in the darkroom, that was awesome! I would use skateboarding in all of my assignments because that’s what I was always out doing. My teacher once joking said I should shoot for Thrasher Magazine in one of his critiques. Not long after that I made a decision to pursue photography. If I wanted to be serious I would need to acquire the right equipment, but I had zero money…none. I felt so strongly about my decision that I couldn’t wait to get my new passion off the ground. I was willing to start saving all my nickels and dimes for some new gear. My sweet grandma heard about my dilemma and offered to loan me a large amount of money because she believed in me. It was a miracle.
With the help of my friend and skate photog Seu Trinh, I bought a brand new Hasselblad 501cm with a 180mm lens, 30mm fisheye, and a couple quantum q-flash strobes to get me started off. I didn’t even know how to load the film on the camera! I learned how to shoot on that thing with guys like Daewon Song, James Craig, Tom Krauser, Landon Mitchell, Danny Garcia just to name a few. I used my light meter and lots of polaroids to make sure things were looking good before I shot film along with tons of phone calls to my photog friends when an issue would arise. It was maybe a couple months of shooting when Danny Garcia hit me up to use one of the photos we shot for a Royal Trucks ad. That was my first photo published. It was on.
Heath Kirchart - Kickflip
It seemed up until the late 1990s that a photographer with a fisheye lens and handle grip flash could almost get the job done. But what does it take today? What’s in your bag or bags for a typical day out?
I feel that with the easy access of digital equipment and affordable prices, it is easier for one to get into skate photography now. I’m sure I’ve wasted so much money with you shooting film sequences and bailing stills! Not anymore, just a couple SD cards and shoot all day with no problem. But to me that’s not all skate photography is about. It’s about perspective, story telling, expression and the ability to give the trick justice all in one frame. But on the other hand, having the right tools for the job is vital. I usually have a backpack with my Canon 1DX, a fisheye, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and a couple Quantum q-flashes. I always carry a film camera to…usually a Leica M6. I try to pack light and keep my gear to a minimum. It’s important to be mobile and quick, time is always of the essence.
Before shooting digital became affordable, it looked as though medium format was becoming the standard. What did you take away from shooting medium format? What were it’s biggest pros and cons?
Medium format was what I learned to shoot skate photos on and was the magazine standard for the time I started. I’ve always loved the square frame of a Hasselblad and the quality was top notch. It was definitely more expensive than 35mm and you only got 12 frames to shoot on a roll, well for me that was the case because I only had a 120 back. But, I think it came down to quality and the look, it has so much detail and range. I’m glad to have learned on that format, it was a definitely a bit strange to go to a 35mm frame after shooting square for so long.
During that medium format era is when I noticed you got your foot in the door at The Skateboard Mag. How did you start working for TSM, and what’s it been like working with such a legendary group of photographers?
I started sending photos to all of the mags and got a couple things ran here and there. I had a lot of photos of Daewon and had a full interview of him come out in Skateboarder Magazine. Daewon doesn’t really shoot with many people so having images of him was like having gold. That helped so much to have some photos of him when sending editors photos to check out. As for TSM, I knew Atiba a little bit from being on sessions with him a few times, he was always the coolest guy. I sent him some photos to check out and he helped me get my foot in the door at The Skateboard Mag. I eventually made relationships with Swift and Grant and was sending them photos and getting stuff used. They eventually asked me to be a staff photographer for them and I couldn’t believe it. I was in awe! I love what that magazine stands for, skateboarding and photography plain and simple. Grant, Swift and Atiba are legends and it’s rad to be able to work with them! I am excited to see what the future holds for the mag, good things are coming!
Daewon Song - 360 Flip to Fakie
What I like most about your photos is your incredible framing. When at a spot, how much do you factor in the trick/skaters stance compared to the environment where the trick is taking place?
Thanks, composition is very important to me and I try my best to compose accordingly. But, with skateboarding there are other variables that have to be considered. Most importantly I want to give the trick as much justice as possible. I want to make the gap look as big as possible, make the rail look as gnarly as can be and make the skater look as good as I can. I try to incorporate that with the surrounding environment to try and make an interesting image. I want to make the photograph very easy to look at and I don’t want to take anything away from the subject.
How much goes into editing photos these days? What program do you use? It’s crazy that people used to use different camera’s or film to make something look a certain way, and now it can all be done after the fact with the push of a button. Do you ever feel that has taken away something in a sense?
I edit all my photos myself and I try to keep that as minimal as possible. I will do some color and contrast corrections, and some sharpening here and there using photoshop. Sometimes I will have to take a filmer out of the frame, but not always.
I don’t really mind if someone uses filters or programs that add a certain look, because if the end result is good, then whatever it took to get there was fine. But there’s a lot of over processed images out these days, and you can see right through them. So as long as an image is kept classy and looks nice…it’s all good to me.
So you’re also the Vans staff photographer…how did that come about? What all does that position entail?
Yes, I’m am the Vans skate staff photographer and that is pretty much a dream job to me! I got the job through the marketing/skate manager at the time named Robin Fleming. I was turning in a Dylan Rieder photo that was going to be a Vans ad and she asked if I would be interested in the position. There has never been a Vans staff skate photographer before and she thought it would be a good idea to get one going. I still am very grateful for her to ask me knowing she could have easily asked anyone else in the industry.
My job is to try and shoot all of the skate and apparel ads, catalogs, in store POP stuff, web stuff, all things skate related. I also try and get all of the team guys coverage in The Skateboard Mag with interviews and stuff too.
And what’s it been like working with Greg Hunt for the Vans video? Thankfully, it looks as though the days of fighting over the fisheye angle are in the past. What is the filmer/photographer dynamic like these days?
Working with Greg is a valuable learning experience. He has such a high standard and a gnarly work ethic. Everything he does is top notch and amazing! He’s become a good friend and we always figure out our angles and try and stay out of each other’s way.
You were pretty well traveled before, but this Vans video has taken you guys across the globe. What’s been your most memorable trip from a pure skateboarding standpoint? And what location has been your most memorable from a pure photography standpoint?
With Vans being such a huge company and having lots of resources, we have traveled to some pretty amazing locations. From a pure skateboarding point of view, I would say China or Barcelona would be the two places that have the most amazing spots…and tons of them! But from a photography aspect, I really like traveling the US and certain places like Miami, Dallas and Montana are pretty epic for photos. Miami would have to be my favorite because there is so much color and character to that place, it feels like another country but the best part is everyone speaks english!
Ray Barbee - BS 360
Do you ever get anxious or nervous when shooting a gnarly photo. I imagine with the tricks going down today that the pressure is also on you to document it correctly. I mean some of this stuff is a one try make or break deal…does that ever stress you out? Have you ever completely blown the shot and had to make someone re-do a trick?
I definitely get nervous when shooting something crazy. I want to try and make the trick look as gnarly as I can and also look rad. Sometimes the guy lands it first try and I hate that! Haha! I like to have a few tries to see how things look and figure out my situation, but that’s not always. I’ve missed a few sequences before when I’m changing batteries or memory cards before, that sucks when that happens. But as far as completely blowing it, I don’t think I have. Maybe though. Haha. I have had to re-shoot a few things, one thing was a cover of TSM with Heath Kirchart backlipping a huge triple kink rail. The photos we got the first time he did it just weren’t cover worthy and he knew if it was shot right it could work as a cover for sure. So thank God he was down to go back and re-shoot it. We nailed it the second time and the photo looked a lot better.
With the Vans video looming and you having witnessed a good portion firsthand, I have to ask who’s part you’re most looking forward to? And who’s part do you think is going to catch the most people by surprise?
I’m super excited to see this video come out! I’ve witnessed so much rawness go down and there is also so much stuff I haven’t seen either. I would say AVE is going to have the part of his life and win SOTY! He’s been on a complete mission to get the best part ever and from what I’ve seen I think he will make it happen. I think Gilbert Crockett will knock the socks off of people and they won’t know what hit them…he’s on another level!
How about a little word association…what comes to mind when I say John Cardiel?
Speed. Fearless. 1/2 Mexican!
Soul. Genuine. Classic.
Street Ninja. Cheese & Crackers. Loosest trucks in the game.
101. BS 360’s. Style.
What would you say has been your all time favorite camera, and why?
I would say my all time favorite camera would have to be my Leica M6. First off the thing is so well built and feels amazing in your hands. The quality is top notch and the the images it produces has such a classic feel. I mostly shoot black & white film with it and love the results!
Well that’s about all I’ve got. Do you have anyone you’d like to thank or any advice you’d like to pass on to someone just starting out in photography?
I would like to thank you for having rad stuff to talk about and putting together some rad questions! Also for shooting me in the past and letting me waste so many rolls of film!! Thanks man.
I would like to thank everyone that gave me the chance to shoot and believing in me. It means a lot. Thanks to Atiba, Swift, Grant and all the guys at TSM for backing me. And also a huge thanks to the guys at Vans for letting me be a part of such a rad brand!
To the aspiring photographers, invest as much time as it takes to get where you want. Shoot, shoot and shoot more. Practice makes perfect.