On July 10, Juice WRLD’s posthumous album Legends Never Die dropped. It quickly set records. It was the biggest Billboard debut of 2020 by selling 497,000 equivalent album units in its first week. It was the biggest posthumous debut since Biggie’s Life After Death and Tupac’s R U Still Down released in 1997. But before diving into the music itself, fans were greeted by the project’s colorful cover: an illustration of Juice WRLD standing in a field of flowers in front of a purple-tinted sky. Matt Adam took the photo in Los Angeles a few months before Juice WRLD's tragic death—the photo was then illustrated by Corey Pane for the cover.
“It's almost surreal that I have a photo that's on [the album cover],” Adam tells Complex. “But it's not about me. What it's really about is solidifying the legacy of these artists through art.”
While the Juice WRLD cover is arguably his most recognized work to date, it is far from the beginning for the Toronto native. He’s photographed countless big names like Kanye West, Travis Scott, Playboi Carti, Young Thug, and more. He’s responsible for the photo on Nav’s Good Intentions cover and was behind the scenes for his “Turks” video shoot. And sometimes the 31-year-old just photographs the interesting locals he encounters in Los Angeles where he currently resides. Recently, he's been documenting pivotal moments of 2020 like the protests against police brutality and racial injustice. He shoots everything exclusively on film, saying his favorite setup is the Leica M6 with a 35mm summaron, but he loves photography so much that he will use anything.
“It's so beautiful. Because when you press that button and you see the shutter close and open, you know what picture you got. You can see it.” says Adam. “It's almost more vivid than digital. It's almost like an imprint on your brain. I encourage everyone to shoot film. I think it's really important.”
But before he was an in-demand photographer, Adam was a graffiti artist and skateboarder roaming around the streets of Toronto. He ran into some legal trouble during his teenage years because of his hobby before shifting his creativity to a now-defunct clothing brand, Pardon Le Dopeness, which launched around 2008. He recalls giving T-shirts to local kids in the neighborhood to help market his brand at the time. Pardon Le Dopeness even officially collaborated with The Weeknd’s XO label at one point. It was a pivotal era in the city for music when artists like Drake, The Weeknd, Tory Lanez, and more were all becoming more high profile. And Adam had his own part in that through the clothing brand.
He was actually friendly with The Weeknd during his high school days, a decade before he was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. He recalls a particular night in 2009 where they were hanging out by a popular Toronto nightclub called The Social. A homeless man started singing in the alley and The Weeknd joined him.
“That’s when I knew The Weekend was going to be the biggest star of all time,” he says. “I'd never heard him sing before. There's little moments like that in your life when you see greatness. I knew 100 percent. This guy is the next fucking Michael Jackson.”
Each step along the way pulled Adam further into photography. During his graffiti days, he would archive all of his work with disposable cameras and loved the feeling of receiving the final prints. It became more official when he shot lookbooks for his clothing brand. Then he got his first big break when Tory Lanez hired him to be his tour photographer in 2015. Adam says he was probably taking 100,000 photos a month at the time. He eventually quit in 2017, but says touring is what helped him hone his craft early on because of the fast pace and high pressure.
His work on the road would lead to him meeting super producer Benny Blanco, who has made beats for artists including Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Rihanna. Adam initially shot for him during a studio session in Miami, but lost his phone number the following day in a blunder, which he jokingly compares to a real-life reenactment of the cult classic ‘90s film A Night at the Roxbury. But Adam knew this relationship would be important, so a few weeks after the initial encounter, Adam recalls climbing over the gate surrounding Blanco’s Los Angeles mansion, getting inside Blanco’s house thanks to a maid, and dropping off a canvas covered in skulls in hearts that Adam painted—he put his contact information on the back. To this day he doesn’t know if Blanco kept the painting, but the two have become close friends. Adam has shot plenty of Blanco’s single covers and album promo material that’s featured on Sunset Boulevard billboards in Los Angeles.
“I don't even think he got the painting. He probably threw the fucking thing out, didn't even look, and I guess just from the energy that I put out into the universe, he hit me up,” says Adam with a laugh. “You’ve got to do everything to get to where you are. You got to do the most.”
Blanco would eventually be the connector between Adam and Juice WRLD. Adam says he was always a big fan of the rapper’s music before they even worked together, particularly his freestyles—Adam remembers freestyling with his close friends to pass time when they were younger. The photo used on Legends Never Die first appeared on the cover art for Benny Blanco’s “Graduation” single, which featured Juice’s vocals. Adam shot the photo while on set for the video in August 2019. He wasn’t notified until months later that it would be used on the posthumous album. Interscope told him that Juice’s family selected his photo to be used for its cover art.
“I was honored. I was blown away when they hit me up,” Adam tells Complex. “It was out of nowhere. I was just like, God damn, this is beautiful.”
Adam says although people think he spends hours with an artist to get the perfect photo, most of the time he has less than 20 minutes. He says shooting Juice WRLD on set was a similar scenario. He had to capture him in between takes of a big budget music video, but he never felt rushed.
“It was actually probably one of the most fun shoot dates I've ever had. That's why I always tell people to take it easy. I see all these directors yelling and getting angry and all these photographers being mad. I'm like, what's wrong with these people? It's supposed to be fun,” Adam tells Complex. “In order to get the best photos, you have to make people comfortable.”
After the shoot, he recalls sitting backstage with the rapper just talking about riding dirt bikes. The two were supposed to go riding the following week, but scheduling conflicts prevented it from happening. A few months later, Juice WRLD tragically passed away at the age of 21. Reminiscing on the day he took the picture, Adam says he immediately knew he captured something memorable.
“I knew that one was the one when I took it,” says Adam with a sense of pride. “When he had that look in his eyes, the one dread was coming over his eye into the pupil. It was just like a perfect fucking photo.”
With an array of highlights to look back on, Adam hopes to elevate his career. Despite a slowdown due to Covid-19, he says his next step is spending more time showcasing his work to the world. He is releasing a photo book, God Sees, in the near future. He also plans on opening galleries in major cities once the social climate allows for it again.
“I spend a lot of my life helping other people make millions and get ahead in their career,” says Adam. “I think now is the time where I'm going to be concentrating on myself a little bit more.”