A Chat With Veteran Skate Photographer J. Grant Brittain

Photos and captions by J. Grant Brittain

J. Grant Brittain has been spending a lot of time in his garage in Encinitas lately, sorting through filing cabinets and Tupperware containers packed with old photographs he’s taken.

Brittain is a 62-year-old Californian who’s been shooting film photos since he was 25, transitioning from “Grant from the skatepark” to Transworld photographer and eventually co-founder of The Skateboard Mag. His next project is a book—due out sometime next year—that will showcase the many eras of skateboarding that he’s both lived through, and spent time documenting.

“It’s overwhelming,” Grant says of his archives. “It’s over 100, 000 photos and negatives, slides, prints. A lot of stuff’s not dated. I’m rediscovering photos that I’d forgotten I’d even taken—I’m looking at them, going, ‘Did I take this? I don’t remember.’ It’s kind of a blur.”

Grant first picked up a camera in February 1979 while working at Del Mar skatepark in Southern California. It was actually his roommate’s camera and Grant was just told to match the exposure needle and keep the sun behind him. He shot a full roll, got two good photos out of it and felt good. But the real eureka moment was when an older skater named Sonny Miller invited Grant into the darkroom at Palomar College to develop some photos. “I just went, ‘Oh my god, this is what I want to do,’” says Grant. “I couldn’t not do photography after that, I needed it. I mean, there was no job as a skate photographer back then, but I knew I wanted to do some sort of photography.”

Steve Rocco and I were out shooting various South Bay spots and we just wanted to get some pushing shots down by the beach in Hermosa. As I was getting set up to take the photo, this police officer wandered into my frame and made a nice photo all the better. I guess on that day skateboarding was not a crime. Happy accidents have always been a part of my photography and this made us happy.

From there, Grant switched his college major from art to photography, then spent the next few months living at the skatepark so that he could save money. “I just went and slept there for eight months and put all my stuff in boxes in the back room,” he recalls. Thankfully, the owners of the skatepark also ran a trailer park next door, which had a pool, a laundromat and showers, so it was pretty comfortable. “I would just take all my showers there and sleep on the pool table,” he says. “I was starting to go to Palomar College and taking photography during the day so I was pretty much just living the life, you know?”

By his own account, Grant was lucky. Over the course of his life, he often found himself at the right place, at the right time. Back when he got into skate photography, he says there were “like eight people” doing it. “There’d be three people in the skatepark and you’d be skating or taking pictures with the future pros,” he explains. “We didn’t know any of that. Everybody had to work and ride the bus to the skatepark. But it was this breeding ground for the future of skateboarding.”

I was shooting at the Del Mar Skate Ranch in 1982 with my medium format Mamiya C3 TLR and was trying to get a good photo for my class at Palomar College. At the time, I don’t think anyone had shot skateboarding much with a larger than 35mm format camera and this frame of Tony Hawk flying out of the Del Mar Keyhole might possibly be the first. I only shot 3 frames on the 120mm roll of Kodak Tri-X film and developed and printed it the next day to turn in. I can’t remember what grade I got, but 35 years later, I give it an A.

It was while working at Del Mar that Grant met a 12-year-old kid by the name of Tony Hawk, and as the story goes, it was Grant who carried Tony out of the bowl when he knocked his teeth out. “Yeah, I guess I did,” Grant says. “[Tony] tells that story but I don’t really remember. I carried a lot of people out of the bowl. I think I just picked him up, I mean he was pretty lightweight.”

Tony Hawk was really young when I shot this portrait at Sanoland Ditch in Cardiff-by-the-Sea in 1983. This was during a little group skate sesh with some of the DMSR locals and at the time I shot it, I didn’t realize it would become this iconic portrait of the best skateboarder in the world. Tony Hawk turns 50 years old this month.

By 1987, Grant was making $200 a month as a photographer for Transworld and his friend Stacey Peralta invited him to take photos on the set of a skate film he was making called The Search For Animal Chin. The film pretty much became the quintessential ‘80s skateboarding movie and is still revered for its super-cheesy storyline, a quality of acting that’s akin to a porno movie and a bunch of kooky catchphrases. But the skateboarding in Animal Chin was groundbreaking, featuring all-time legends Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero and Tony Hawk. It’s incredible how fresh-faced they all look.

Brittain took photos on set for about a week and came out with two that he’s become particularly well known for. One was the four handplants—an image that’s pretty much what it sounds like—with the Bones Brigade simultaneously perched upside down on top of a massive vert spine that was built especially for the occasion. (The image has become so iconic that they recreated it at Woodward in 2016.)

Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain and Tony Hawk had been riding and filming on the Chin Ramp for a few days and then they started working on doubles, triples and quadruples on different parts of the multifaceted wooden surface. The spine—where the two ramps met and skaters could approach from opposite sides—was a natural place for these four handplants to come together. I didn’t find out till 30 years later that the Brigade didn’t know I was shooting this until the photos were developed. They just thought they were filming.

Grant describes the day as “one of those special shoots where you’re relieved more than anything that you didn’t blow it.” Evidently, it was a big deal to be shooting those guys in the late ‘80s but also, photography was a whole different game back then. “Those were the days where you couldn’t check it on digital. I didn’t know if I had the shot until I took the film in. It was like, ‘God, I hope I exposed it right and I hope I hit the shutter at the right time.’ Now you see everything instantly and then you see it on Instagram 20 seconds later.”

In 1986, film director slash pro skater Stacy Peralta asked me to shoot the Bones Brigade on set for their new video, ‘The Search for Animal Chin’. The ramp was built without permits and enough lumber for a couple of houses and was only up for a week. I jumped in the helicopter for the shot of the Bones Brigade running up to the Ramp for the first time and yes, I was humming Wagner’s ‘Flight of the Valkyries’.

The other image was taken from a helicopter, looking down on a vert ramp somewhere in Oceanside, California. They built the ramp especially for the film and although it was one of the biggest ramps in existence at the time, it was dismantled within a few days of the shoot. “Stacey goes, ‘You want to go up in the helicopter?’ and I was like slobbering, like ‘Yeah I wanted to go up in the helicopter!’” Brittain remembers humming the Wagner song from Apocolypse Now and thinking, “It was just an awesome sight, I mean there weren’t ramps like that anywhere.”

Grant makes no secret of the fact that the ‘80s was his favourite era of skateboarding. I ask him whether this is because he was still in his 20s, because of the tricks that were being invented back then, or if it’s something that goes beyond the more obvious markers of that generation. “I think it’s all of that,” he says, describing a scene that couldn’t be more different from that of today. “The mainstream did not care about skateboarding. We were ignored. Nobody was making any money, we were living off Taco Bell and nobody was getting any cheques.”

“Then street skating started and we were learning how to shoot all this stuff. It was like, what’s the best angle to shoot this trick in the street? Because nobody had done it before… I think it’s the golden age of skateboarding.”

The Mt Baldy Pipe has been skated since the 1970s and my first trip there was in 1986 with Salba, Chris Miller, Dave Duncan, Lance Mountain, Jim Gray, Steve Steadham, John Lytle (Dettman), Jeremy Henderson and Mark “Gator” Rogowski. I shot multiple rolls during that session and this Layback of Gator on the flat wall is still one of my favourites. Baldy Pipe is still the location of many insane sessions to this day and may it be the oldest of skate spots.

The ‘90s couldn’t have been more different. Vert skating was out and street was in, to the point where the editorial staff at Transworld actually got death threats for running a vert photo in the mag. “It was a weird time,” says Grant. “Big baggy clothes, little wheels, popsicle stick boards and white shirts. I thought it got a little closed minded but it got super technical.”

While Grant says he appreciates how that era helped evolve skateboarding into what it is today, it’s easy to see why it was a shitty time for shooting photos. As skateboarding got increasingly technical, the demand for photographers was to shoot sequences. But the problem was that the technology hadn’t really caught up, so those sequences required a lot of film. This was really expensive and sometimes unrewarding.

“I wasted so much film,” Grant recalls. “You know, a guy would try something for 50 tries and then break his board and you’re trying to shoot sequences constantly—it wasn’t a lot of fun doing that.”

I count myself lucky that I took up a camera when I did in 1979, because by the time I had the chance to shoot this Frontside Boneless of Mark Gonzales at a contest in Huntington Beach, I could do so without getting my fish-eye lens smashed. The photo made the April 1985 cover of TWS.

But it wasn’t all bad—the ‘90s was also when skateboarding started to prove itself as a profitable entity and people were able to earn a real living from it. Transworld grew into something much more polished and professional than it had been previously—at its height, the magazine got up above 400-pages. For Grant, this meant travelling all over the US and Europe shooting photos: “I mean, I got to shoot all the film I wanted,” he says. “And when you shoot a lot of film, you get better.”

By 2004, Transworld had been bought and sold multiple times by a string of big corporations. The final straw was when it sold to AOL, and Grant, along with long-time editorial staff Dave Swift and Atiba Jefferson (amongst others) walked out and started The Skateboard Mag. The goal for the new magazine was to make something that was comparatively anti-corporate. Brittain says they didn’t even let Nike advertise until the shoe-giant put together a decent skate team.

I had been working at the Del Mar Skate Ranch for about 6 months and in February of 1979 I borrowed my roommate’s Canon AE-1 and shot a roll of Kodachrome 64 film that he loaded for me. He instructed me to just match the exposure needle and have the sun behind me. My test dummy was Kyle Jensen, a young Del Mar Skate Ranch local. I got a couple of good shots.

The Berrics bought The Skateboard Mag in 2015, after which Brittain worked there for one more year and then moved on. He still shoots, doing freelance stuff for brands like Vans and Nixon, but now his main focus is the book, which he admits he’s been working on sporadically for many years. “I’ve unofficially been working on it since 2003,” he laughs. “And finally I’m to a point where I can see the end is in sight. I’m not getting any younger, so I’ve got to get it done.”

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