I’ve always thought that J. Grant Brittain was coolest, then I chatted with him on the phone. Now I know he’s the coolest.
J. Grant Brittain is a true innovator of skate culture and an icon to skate photographers everywhere. He started taking pictures at California’s infamous Del Mar Skate Ranch in the 1980s, and in the process of doing so he documented the rise of some of the world’s best skateboarders. Brittain’s talent of exposing the vulnerability of every athlete he shoots adds a depth of excitement and sincerity to each image.
During his extensive time at TransWorld SKATEboarding, Brittain’s groundbreaking photos, along with his passion to stay true to spirit of skateboarding, helped shape the course of skate magazines forever. In 2003 he ventured away from the corporate takeover of TransWorld and started his own publication, The Skateboard Mag, which continues to supply fans with some of the best skate photos, writing, and design to this very day.
Tell me a little about your recent Instagram exhibits:
I just did a bunch of shows in a row down here in San Diego. Within three months I think I did four shows. A couple were Instagram shows with Chris Miller who owned Planet Earth, Rhythm, and Adio Shoes–he sold those and now he runs Alli sports, they do the Mountain Dew tour and all that stuff. He does really great art. Originally the show was going to be me doing photos of him over time—from all my years of shooting him—and he was going to do art for the show, but he didn’t get it together so he said, ‘Hey do you want to do an Instagram show?’ He’s owlcat on Instagram, and I’m grantbrittain.
Do you use Instagram a lot?
Oh, yeah. I shoot the people I meet, abstracts, sunsets, and everything else that people put on Instagram, but I try to make the quality look good too.
Do you plan on putting out a book of your photos?
Yeah, I have plans. It’s just got to get done, that’s the hard part. Doing the magazine takes up a lot of my time. I’ll get started on a book, and I’ll get a couple days into it, and then I’ll get distracted with other things. It’s going to be my next major project, but I’ve been saying that for ten years. I have to do it before I die [chuckles].
That’s a good plan.
Yeah, I think a lot of people had that plan: ‘Hmm, I might clean out the garage before I die.’ And then their relatives are stuck with this garage full of stuff.
Ha! Out of all the photos you shot, would you say you have a favorite?
There’s a few that people always bring up: the black-and-white photo of Swank pushing that was on the cover of TransWorld;
The Chris Miller pole cam;
the Bones Brigade’s four handplants on the Chin ramp;
the silhouette photo of Rodney Mullen free styling back at Del Mar in the 80s;
photos of Gonz [Mark Gonzales].
Are some skaters more fun to shoot than others? What makes someone a good photo subject?
Somebody who has good style. You got people like Mark Gonzales, Chris Miller and Gator, who you knew when you went to shoot with them you were going to get good photos. You didn’t have to make them look good, they just looked good on their own. Then all you have to do is make sure you’re shooting the correct angle, your exposure’s got to be on, and your lights and flashes have to be going off. When I go to a spot I assess the situation with the sun, the lighting, the background, things like that. Within 20 seconds I can figure out what I’m going to do. I might change my mind halfway through the shoot, you know, ‘Maybe this doesn’t look good.’ With digital you kind of second-guess yourself a lot. Now you have the skater being like, ‘Let me look at the photo,’ and then he’s got to put in his two cents. Skaters aren’t always the best judges of skate photos because when they’re looking at the photo they’re personally attached to it. They’ll be like, ‘Oh no, I’m making a face,’ when that is actually part of what makes the photo good; it personalizes it and shows the human side to somebody. There’s not just the facial reaction, it’s a little of everything. It can be a hand, it can be an arm, or it can be the way they’re grabbing or releasing their board. There are all these little details.
Were you interested in photography prior to working at Del Mar?
No. I always looked at photos, and I think when I was a kid I shot some with an instamatic camera, but I never really dabbled in it until I was an art major–or trying to be an art major–in college.
And that was when you were working at the Skate Ranch?
Yeah. When I first started working at Del Mar I’d been off-and-on through junior college taking art classes and just General Ed. I thought I would go into some sort of art field. About 8 months into working at the park I borrowed my roommate’s camera and shot a roll of film. It just kind of stemmed from that.
Which art medium were you originally studying?
I was taking some drawing classes, and I was into cartooning. I planned on going into some sort of cartooning or animation.
Are you still interested in animation?
I like it, but I think now I’m more interested in graphics and design than I am in cartoons. I mean, if it were now, I probably would have gone into that assigned field. I’m really attracted to that kind of stuff as it relates to photography. I think it affects my photography a lot.
How does an interest in graphic design help your photography?
I’m pretty graphically minded when I take photos. I see in positive and negative space, and black-and-white. Even when I’m shooting in color I’ll often be seeing it in black-and-white. I try to simplify and get rid of all distractions in the photos. There’s a lot of previsualization, even in skateboard photography. I just try to get it to the most pure form graphically. Working at a magazine, and with art directors, you are able to see the end result as a layout, so you kind of shoot that way when you’re shooting for a magazine.
What camera do you shoot with the most?
For skating I shoot with my Canon 5D.
Why is that?
It has high megapixels, I like the light, and I like it ergonomically. I switched over to Canon several years ago, not because of the technical aspects of the cameras, but mainly because it felt better in my hand than Nikon. Optically they’re very equal.
Do you shoot as often as you used to?
No. I quit shooting street when I hit 50 years old. Street skating is against the law in a lot of places because it’s damaging to property, it’s loud, and some people think it’s obnoxious. That’s just part of skateboarding to me, but I got tired of dealing with the authorities and well-meaning citizens. Going in and setting up lights and getting a shot is hard when you’re trying to get in there before the law shows up. It’s not that creative, and I want to be creative. I didn’t mind it in the past, but then it got to where it was just annoying. I just want it to be fun, that’s why I got into it. I’ll shoot a ditch or a pool where I can go for hours and change the lights around, and work with the skater, and you’re not rushed, and it makes for a really fun experience. I like to shoot portraits a lot too. I like trying to bring out somebody’s personality in a photo. I’ll also go shoot at Bucky’s house, where he has a bowl, and ten people will show up and they’re all the best vert skaters in the world.
Where is this?
Bucky’s house, Bucky Lasek. He lives in Encinitas [CA] and he’s got a giant bowl in his backyard. It’s really nice, and there’s BBQ going on, people drinking beers, and it’s just a fun time. Some days I go, and I don’t even know who’s going to be there, and then somebody shows up and I get a shot. It’s a lot of fun doing stuff like that. I don’t mind shooting street skating if it’s permitted, like where they actually go through proper channels to get a permit, and you’re not going to get kicked out.
Skaters can do that?
Well, that’s usually commercial stuff. If it’s somebody like Nike they’re going to permit the place. They’re not going to do that ‘get in and get out’ thing. I like it when stuff is like that, but then with these big companies you’ve got two art directors there and it becomes less fun. I’m looking at it as, ‘You know what, we can shoot this, and I can have it done in 15 or 20 minutes and it would cost you a lot less money. You can take all that money you spent on a stylist and a caterer and everything and give it me.’ [Laughs] But yeah, it’s funny, the skater and I will just be sitting there cracking up. We’re just looking at each other going, ‘Dude.’ People like that think it’s the first time you’ve done it. You know, the art director or ad buyer will walk up and be like, ‘Yeah, we got Tony for eight hours,’ and I’ll go, ‘Well, he’s probably only going to skate for an hour. He’s not going to skate for eight hours.’ Then at the same time you have to make it look more difficult than it is, otherwise you can’t get as much money. You can’t make it look too easy. You take extra gear that you would never take on a shoot, and then you just start pulling stuff out of your car and they’re like, ‘Oh, the guy’s professional.’ I don’t do a lot of these jobs, just once in a while.
Do you still skateboard?
No, not really. I just surf. I can still cruise down the street, but I’m not riding any pools or anything. I’m too old and I hate pain. I’ve broken bones in the past and I’d rather save it for other things—but I still love skateboarding. I love the energy, and the look. I’m constantly around skating and my son, who is 18, is a full-on skater. The friends and business partners I have are all pretty much related to skating. I met one of my best friends, Dave Swift, who is an editor at the magazine, at Del Mar. I used to kick him out of the park. I ended up being the manager, so people had to be nice to me or else I’d give them the boot. [Laughs] Not really.
Dave wasn’t nice to you?
No. There was once when he got in a fight with somebody and I kicked him out of the park for a month. Then he tried to get a job at TransWorld and I was like, ‘I don’t know, Dave’s kind of a troublemaker.’ He’ll tell that story till he dies. Now we’re business partners.
I love stories like that. You said you still surf, why don’t you shoot surfers?
I have in the past, and a lot of my friends do. The first guy I ever went into a darkroom to print pictures with was this guy Sonny Miller, and he was a surf photographer. He’s a cinematographer now. He does all the water photography for Hollywood movies like Blue Crush, and I think he worked on Cast Away. Anything that has to do with water photography is his gig. But he’ll go on a trip and I’ll be like, ‘Hey, how was your trip? Did you hit some big waves?’ And he’ll go, ‘they (surfers) did, I didn’t.’ Surf photographers don’t get waves. They have to shoot photos, so they only get to go surfing when the waves are all blown out and crappy. I’d rather surf than take pictures of surfing. I really look up to it, and a lot of the people who I look up to are surf photographers, but I just never got into it.
Do you feel there has to be a divide between your skate work and your other photography?
Well, there isn’t much of a divide with it because when I was traveling for skateboarding I was getting up really early. When everyone else would be sleeping, I’d be cruising the streets of Paris or Tokyo shooting architecture, abstracts, people. I was always working on an article, and when we started TransWorld I started bringing that other stuff into the articles. Before that I don’t know if there was as much of a travel editorial thing going on in skateboard magazines. You can shoot a stairway or rail and it could be down the street, or it could be in Paris. I always wanted to show where it was and give it some sort of context. I was kind of an art geek, so I was bringing that into my whole deal. It crosses over a lot, especially with street skating. You’re out in the environment, there’s a cool building in the background, or a painting, or cool light. I really try to bring that into the magazine and I think magazines have kind of followed that through the years.
Had you thought of starting your own magazine before the AOL Time Warner takeover of TransWorld?
We had talked about it. Every time they’d print an ad that we didn’t like we’d be like, ‘Hey, we got to start our own thing,’ and then it’d go nowhere. We knew we’d need a lot of backing. Then they sold to Time Warner so we decided to just do it. I mean, it wasn’t just that, they had also fired a couple people that were above us.
What was the process of starting a new magazine like?
Well, the main thing was to find the money needed to start a magazine. We got a good loan through a friend we used to work with. He knew we wanted to start something, so he jumped right in with the money and became a partner. Then we had a couple meetings and decided to just do it, and we ended up leaving [TransWorld]. We wanted to do something without all the nonendemic advertisements and we were told it couldn’t be done. We were told that a lot of things couldn’t be done, but we did them. It’s like anything in life: You just have to take a chance at it.