If ever there was an OG photog, Grant Brittain is it. Shooting since the late 70s, Grant is your favorite photog's photog; and if you grew up plastering photos from Transworld (or The Skateboard Mag for you young bucks) on your wall, you were either cutting out photos from Grant, or from one of the many photographers who Grant mentored, like Atiba Jefferson.
Brittain's influence in skate media is unavoidable and undeniable, and it's clear that he loves what he does. He stuck with skateboarding through the downturns of the early 80s and 90s, and along the way gave us some of the most iconic images of all time, including the Animal Chin ramp quad-handplant and the eloquent black and white of Tod Swank pushing, which graced the cover of TWS in June 1987. It was an honor to interview such a rad yet humble dude, so without further rambling, Mr. J. Grant Brittain.
J. Grant Brittain, Let’s get one thing out of the way first, what does the J stand for?
The J stands for Jenius. Actually Jordan is my first name. I have always gone by Grant. My art teacher in college told me to go by J. Grant.
You got your start in photography while managing a skate park in SD (The Ranch), what initially prompted that interest? Was it a quarter-life crisis, like, “oh shit I better pick a career soon” scenario?
I worked at the Del Mar Skate Ranch from 1978-1984. I picked up photography quite by accident, borrowed my roommate’s 35mm Canon in February of 1979 and shot a roll and then got hooked. Thanks Rich Apple. I changed my art major to photography. Never thought of it as a job, there was no money in it back then. It wasn’t a viable career in those days. It was just fun. I thought I would be a fine art photographer and scrape up a living.
The career part came up in 1983 when Larry Balma and Peggy Cozens started Transworld and I gave them photos for Issue #1. There was still no money in skate photography, we built that over the years. I might add that there were maybe four skate photogs in the early 80s, I think Mofo at Thrasher and I were the first to really start making a living and a career out of being a Skateboard Photographer. I also have to give props to the 70s photogs, Bolster, Cassimus, Goodrich, Stecyk, Terrebonne, Sharp, and Friedman. I learned by looking at their photos.
First Skate Photo | Kyle Jensen; The Ranch circa 1979
"...I think Mofo at Thrasher and I were the first to really start making a living and a career out of being a Skateboard Photographer."
Tell us how Palomar Junior College contributed to your start. Who was the instructor that you credit with your introduction to photography and Transworld SKATEboarding?
I started going to Palomar straight out of high school and planned on taking Art and find something in the art world. I attended off and on for 10 years even though it’s a two year program. I had a drawing and life drawing instructor who really changed the way I looked at art and the world. His name is Doug Durrant and he still comes to my events 40 years later and he was a mentor.
Around 1980, my roommate Sonny Miller took me into the darkroom at Palomar and we printed some of my black and white negatives and that was the moment I knew what I wanted to do as my artform. I enrolled in 3 photo classes with the same teacher, Kean Wilcox and he as much as any human(besides my parents) set me on my path. Kean took me under his wing and showed me a whole new way of seeing. I took a basic Black and White class, a color slide class and a 20th Century Photo Trends class my first semester and for the next three years I took every class they had to offer.
You know what’s funny? Both Doug Durrant and Kean Wicox invited me to go get a cup of coffee with them my first week in their classes, that made an impression on me. I had already figured out how to shoot skate photos on my own by looking at skate mags, but I really didn’t have anyone to ask. Skateboarding was dying and the photogs before me were moving over into other sports. I would get a few pointers from Jim Goodrich when he came to the park. It was my time at Palomar with Kean Wilcox that really taught me how light and film worked and that finally brought my skate photography together.
Do you remember what photos you submitted that led to you becoming Founding Editor and Senior Photographer at TWS?
It was 1983 and I was still working at DMSR and Larry Balma at Tracker Trucks had seen a couple of my photos in Thrasher and asked if I would donate a few photos to a “Skate Newsletter” they were working on. I gave them some photos and a while later he invited me up to his office and that’s where I saw 40+ pages of a magazine pinned to the wall. That was to be the first issue of Transworld Skateboarding Magazine.
The Chin Handplants
"...the only time Thrasher would run my photos was when they needed a down south skater."
When it was delivered to the Skate Ranch a few weeks later, we laughed at its editorial message, Be Good, Be Good and Skate and Create and I said I wouldn’t give them more photos, but I did. It was the only show in town, the only time Thrasher would run my photos was when they needed a down south skater.
I started giving TWS photos and was soon doing all of the magazine darkroom work at Palomar. The darkroom tech hated me. After a year of doing it for free, I started getting $200 a month. I quit the skate park job in 1984 and set up a darkroom in the TW office and the next 20 years was set. I was the only Photo Editor until I left TWS in late 2003.
You helped grow TWS for over 20 years, and have helped cultivate a lot of careers in skateboarding, who are some of the standouts that never cease to amaze?
It wasn’t that I was a great photographer, it was just that skateboarding was dead and there were just a few of us shooting the 30 or so Pros. Nobody gave a shit about skateboarding in the early 80s, we were just shooting our friends doing what we all did, skating and having fun. I was lucky to have been a local at the Del Mar Skate Ranch and where I met some of the best skaters in the world and where I got to hone my photographic skills. It was being in the right place at the right time, seriously. When street skating came along, we few skate photogs figured out how to shoot it and it’s basically done the same way today.
I still love shooting Hawk, Mountain, Miller, Nieder, Caballero, Grosso, Staab, Salba and the other Vert guys, they still blow my mind. The early street guys, Gonz, Natas, Guerrero, Dressen primed me for what would come along in the 90s. I love watching people skate, it’s hard not to shoot photos of them.
Tony Hawk | Now & Then
"...skateboarding was dead and there were just a few of us shooting the 30 or so Pros. Nobody gave a shit about skateboarding in the early 80s..."
In 1995, Atiba Jefferson came to you from Colorado looking for work as a photog at TWS,tell us about your first interactions with him.
Atiba sent us photos a few times and moved out to California and we hired him at TWS and he went out and made friends, learned how to take great photos and he climbed to the top.
When you left TWS, did you look at it as a fresh start? What did you do the day you actually left? Hot Tub? Bottle of Scotch?
I went to the movies that night with my wife and had an anxiety attack half way through and my wife squeezed my hand until I calmed down. The next morning I set up my computer at the window and looked into the backyard and took a deep breath and said, “This is good”.
It’s been nearly 10 years since you and TWS parted ways, as you set forth to launch The Skateboard Mag, Are you dreaming up any plans for anniversary yet?
We almost forgot to celebrate it, we are always busy and forgot it was our birthday. Probably doing a special issue and a photo show. Drink a beer, wait... we do that everyday.
Tommy Guerrero | Now & Then
"I try not to take myself to seriously, I am just the guy holding the camera, I am not the skater."
You’ve taken a boat-load of photos, skateboarding and otherwise, Do you have any designated “Favorites”?
Probably the Swank Push, the Miller Pole Cam, the Chin Handplants, Hosoi Rocket Air, Tony’s Crossboned Lien, Gonz Boneless at Gemco, Mike Smith Acid Drop, Natas’ Method Grab over the hip, a few others.
What are some of your other favorite mediums to shoot? Are there any new photo styles you are currently exploring?
I really want to shoot more film and shoot more portraits, abstracts and landscapes. I still use my Leica and Hasselblad and want to use them more and shoot less digital. Digital is great for work, film is meditative, much slower, my roots are there.
For such a prominent figure of your industry you were awfully easy to reach, how the hell do you stay so grounded?
I try not to take myself to seriously, I am just the guy holding the camera, I am not the skater.
Do you get a lot of random requests from admirers? Anything that stands out in particular?
I get requests to do a photo show at their gallery or store and they want me to pay for it, that’s nice of them. Photographers I didn’t know used to ask me for film at contests. Most of the requests are about internships. I don’t really have that much for an intern to do. I don’t mind sharing what I know, but that only takes a couple of hours.
Christian Hosoi | Now & Then
I don’t really have that much for an intern to do. I don’t mind sharing what I know, but that only takes a couple of hours.
What positive / negative trends in skating do you see currently that you’d like to see more / less of?
I don’t know, things can’t stay the same. I am stoked on youngsters like Jacob Messex that are shooting more film and are really getting into the art of photography. I am stoked on Arto Saari’s photos, his work reminds me of the old days of skateboarding. I like how he’s showing the lifestyle of skating. I still look up to a few of my peers who keep making great images, I won’t list them. I used to love shooting contests and events, I don’t anymore, the extravaganza just takes the pleasure out it.
Are there any up and coming skaters you see sticking around for a while? Personal Faves?
I don’t know, I guess I like on edge guys like Ben Raybourn. I don’t shoot street anymore, so I am the wrong guy to ask. I like people that skate with their arms and hands held a certain way, like surfers. Just kidding.
Gator | Layback Baldy
What’s on the agenda for J. Grant Brittain and The Skateboard Mag in 2014?
We’re changing our format size and paper of the print mag and taking over the web. I am doing some shows, selling my prints and still working on the never ending never finished book project.
One last thing, what should we ask Atiba for HIS interview???
I don’t know.