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I Do Not Sell Couches: Interview with Photographer J. Grant Brittain

In 2002, I took a photography workshop in Santa Fe and failed to immediately recognize that one of my classmates was in fact J. Grant Brittain, one of the pioneers of skate photography. If you looked at an issue of Transworld Skateboarding from 1983 until 2004, you have seen his work. I recently caught up […]

In 2002, I took a photography workshop in Santa Fe and failed to immediately recognize that one of my classmates was in fact J. Grant Brittain, one of the pioneers of skate photography. If you looked at an issue of Transworld Skateboarding from 1983 until 2004, you have seen his work.

I recently caught up with Grant, who is now the Director of Photography, Production Manager and Co-Owner of The Skateboard Mag,  to talk about his life and work as a skateboard photographer and experiences in magazine publishing.

Gene Pittman:
When did you first start photographing the skate scene in California?

Grant Brittain:
I borrowed my roommate’s Canon in February of 1979 while working at the Del Mar Skate Ranch. I had no idea what I was doing.

Christian Hosoi, Del Mar, CA

Craig Stecyk, Tony Hawk, Stacy Peralta, Del Mar Skate Ranch

GP:
People often discuss what a certain skater brings to the sport—what do you bring to skate photography?

GB:
I think I brought a little bit of art to it and then helping start the magazine Transworld Skateboarding (TWS) in 1983 helped me with integrating a graphic sense into my photography. I always try to simplify what I see, not just shooting willy-nilly, really pre-visualizing the whole shot.

Andy Macdonald, San Diego, CA

GP:
What images of yours do you feel had an stylistic impact on skate photography?

GB:
Probably the shot of Tod Swank pushing that was on the June 1987 cover of TWS. I thought about that shot a lot before shooting it. That scene was on my way to coffee every morning and I would study the light every time I drove or walked by.
It’s all about the graphic quality of the shadow and light and the action of just someone skating from point A to point B. I think every skater can relate to it.
David Carson, the Art Director, and I ended up getting into an argument with the rest of the staff about running it on the cover and I quit for a couple of days.

Tod Swank

Transworld Skateboarding, June 1987

GP:
Of all of your skateboard photographs, is there one you find to be your favorite?

GB:
The Chris Miller, Pole Cam photo is my favorite. Just the conceptual part and the shadow of Chris and I in the background, which tells the whole story.

Chris Miller, Pole Cam, Upland, CA

GP:
Who pushes you photographically?

GB:
The other skate photogs make me want to take better photos. I don’t shoot as much as the young guys, but I try to make it count when I do. I am into the thought process as much as the activity. I also look at a lot of books and websites and go to shows and take workshops to get inspiration from the past and what’s happening now.

Bob Burnquist's loop

GP:
When did you last skate?

GB:
I rode over to my son’s friend’s house a couple of weeks ago to get him. I cruise down the street every couple of months to see if I can still do it. I surf quite a lot. Water is softer than pavement.

Dayne Brummet, East County, San Diego, CA

GP:
Most photographers remember the shot they missed, either because they left a camera behind, were out of film or digital memory. Is there a shot you regretfully missed?

GB:
I missed the 900. I shot at least 150 rolls of different people trying it over the years. I got kicked out of the 1999 Xgames and went back to the hotel and then got a call from Jeff Taylor and he told me Tony (Hawk) made the 900. Devastating.

Tony Hawk, Sanoland, Cardiff, CA

GP:
You seem to have a unique relationship with your subject matter. These skaters pretty much grew up with you. Did this give you a certain amount of access unavailable to other photographers? You appear to have been present at the moment when the sport was transforming into something which was financially lucrative for a lot of these young kids and becoming more of a business. Did the growth of the sport make it harder for you to maintain the access to which you had become accustomed?

GB:
I had all of the access to most riders in the beginning. When certain people got well known and skating hit the airwaves, it was still easy to get magazine shots. On the commercial side, it was a different story, dealing with agents who didn’t know me from Jesus and art directors looking over my shoulder on shoots. “I know what makes a good skate photo, don’t tell me how to shoot it marketing guy or girl!” “Yes, I do have a personal relationship with Tony and I have shot photos of him genius, I used to baby-sit the guy. I carried the guy out of the half-pipe at Del Mar when he lost his teeth.” That’s the kind of real world stuff we deal with, now that TV has its clutches on skateboarding. It was fun before, just going out and shooting photos for ads, one on one. Now everyone’s an expert, art buyers, agents, and art directors that have no connection to skateboarding. You have to play the game though to survive financially, it’s the dog and pony show as a commercial photographer once told me. The big companies could save a lot of money if they would just let us skate photogs do our job. Most guys can shoot a helluva great skate shot with two strobes, we don’t need the art directors and the caterers.

Jaya Bonderov, San diego, CA

GP:
Let’s talk a bit about magazines. What was the creative relationship between you and David Carson at TWS?

GB:
I knew David Carson from 1975, he didn’t know me. He was competing in WSA(Western Surfing Assocation) and I was in the kneeboard division. David was a hot surfer, he was ranked #1 or #2 on the West Coast. I helped start Transworld Skateboarding in 1983 and we all worked on layouts, GSD, Blender, Mountain, Ridgeway, Jinx, Larry Balma, Peggy Cozens. We had no idea what we were doing, just kind of learning along the way, Remember this was before computers, it was paste up and cutting stuff out with Xacto knives and squaring it off with t-squares and triangles and burnishing type, painstaking hands on work. In 1985, they hired David Carson as Art Director, he was teaching sociology or something at Torrey Pines High School in Del Mar. Well, he came on and things started to happen. Carson had taken a workshop with a Swiss designer and he had a different view from us on design. We were zine makers, raw and gritty and David had this clean professional look.

But David was an outsider at the mag and some resented what he was doing with layout and photos. I would meet up with David at local Mexican joints and we would draw on napkins with Sharpies over some beers. We had a pretty good working relationship for a while, but the other dudes kind of got pushed out by the design direction the mag was taking. GSD (David’s assistant and pro skater), Carson and I got into a fight with the rest of the staff at one point over the Swank “Pushing” cover. I actually quit for 2 days. We had been running peak action photos on the cover from the mag’s inception and we three wanted to run the Tod Swank photo on the cover. I considered the shot as the “Every Man” photo and the others fought it. In the end, it ran and I feel it was one of the most iconic covers in skateboarding history. Carson put Transworld on the map through his art direction and people outside the industry were taking notice. He just kept pushing the envelope and at the same time was butting heads and finally left and changed the design world.

Bones Brigade, Chin Ramp, Oceanside, CA

GP:
What prompted your departure from TWS, and led you to start The Skateboard Mag?

GB:

I think the moment the owners (I was never an owner, big mistake on my part, hey, I was naive) sold the magazine to Times Mirror, I wanted to leave. I was just never a corporate man and hated the corporate world. It wasn’t that bad with Times Mirror or the next sale to The Tribune Company, but we started noticing bad stuff when Times Warner/AOL got hold of it. I wanted to start our own mag as soon as TWS got bought, but we were always led to believe that you can’t do it without Big Daddy, we were pretty insecure. Then we started experiencing the way Corporate works.  Long time, dedicated employees getting laid off, inept supervisors playing power trips on their underlings and “Corporate Yes Men Suits” being brought in and comparing “selling skateboards to selling couches, no difference” (that was actually said!).  I soon discovered that the word “soul” does not exist in the Corporate Dictionary. They then laid off our publisher and he had been the wall between us and New York. That’s when we decided to leave and start a new mag. Editor-in-Chief, Dave Swift, photographer, Atiba Jefferson, writer, Wilkins, I and a few photogs quit on the same day and it made the San Diego Union business section via writer/skater Conor Dougherty and then the Wall Street Journal picked it up. That’s when the you know what hit the fan. Time Warner/AOL freaked out and wanted to know what the hell was going on out in SoCal?. Their damage control guy came out and tried to get certain people back and when that didn’t work they fired the “Suit” that was at watch in order to save their own jobs, typical corporate M.O.

The Skateboard Mag is everything that TWS could have been, had it not been for the priority of the bottom line. We try to think of skateboarding, skaters and our readers first.

Willy Santos, Sorrento Mesa, CA

GP:
Your blog and website continue to be a steady flow of wonderful images from the past thirty years.  When are we going to see a book and get to dig deep into the Brittain archives?

GB:
A book is the next thing on my list. I need a very large room to work in and that is what is holding the book back. I have so many photos and it will be quite the job organizing and editing. Soon though.

GP:
Any last thing you’d like to mention that we did not cover?

GB:
I love photography and skateboarding.

This was taken by Steve Sherman at Jeff Phillip's skatepark in Dallas in '88 or so. I was walking up the stairs on the side of the ramp looking down at my camera and Corey O'Brien kicked his board out full speed and the griptape side brushed across my face, shaving my nose a bit. Three inches over and it would have killed me, very close call. I flew home with Jetson Band-Aids on my face.