10 Questions: J. Grant Brittain
J. Grant Brittain is a pioneer. Very few individuals have had the impact on an international community in the same way that Brittain has over the years. Starting his career in the late 70′s with a borrowed camera, he managed to get several of his shots published in Thrasher magazine in the early 80′s. While still working at the newly opened Del Mar Skate Ranch, Brittain became involved with an underground newsletter, which eventually turned into the largest skateboard publication in the world – Transworld Magazine.
After a long career building Transworld from the ground up, Brittain set his sights on launching his own magazine, which is simply known as “The Skateboard Mag.” His list of subjects is staggering – Christain Hosoi, Andy MacDonald, Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, and Lance Mountain to name a few. We sat down with Brittain to talk about his experience with the skateboarding community, his career, and his passion for photography. Check out the conversation below and his personal website here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Fallbrook, California in 1955. My childhood was very “normal” and middle class. Grew up in small town and rode bikes, mini-bikes, motor cycles and was in the boy scouts. My brother and I received skateboards for Christmas when we were around 10 years old. Did a lot of butt boarding and bombed hills.
In 1970 I started surfing and that took over my life and I spent all of my energy getting to the beach 20 miles away. I got more into skateboarding when Cadillac Wheels came out and skated when not surfing. Moved to Cardiff by the Sea 35 miles away after graduating from high school. I enrolled at Palomar College to take General Ed and Art classes.
How did you become interested in photography?
I started working and skating at the newly opened Del Mar Skate Ranch in Del Mar, California in 1978 and borrowed my roommate’s camera in February, 1979 and shot my first photos of local skater, Kyle Jensen. After that I started shooting my friends and the various locals and pros that came through the skatepark. I submitted a few photos to Thrasher and probably had 6 or so photos published in the early 80s. In 1983, Larry Balma who owned Tracker Trucks asked me to submit photos to a “Newsletter” he was working on. He invited me up to see it later and that’s when I saw the first issue of Transworld on the wall.
Tell us a little bit about your contribution to Transworld magazine?
I was still working at the Skate Ranch, I had become the manager of the Pro Shop and park and when Larry brought the first issue down to the park, we all scoffed at the “Be Good” and “Skate and Create” tone that it had. It was definitely an Anti-Thrasher mag. I didn’t want to support it at first, but it was the only game in town and I thought I could add to it and help it.
It was great seeing my photos in print since Thrasher only printed my photos when they needed a down South photo. I started working on photos for Transworld and doing the film developing and printing in the darkroom at Palomar where I had switched my major to Photography after being introduced to it by Sonny Miller(now a surf cinematographer).
After a year I started to get a small stipend from the mag and quit the skatepark job in 1984 after 6 years of employment. I put together the darkroom at Transworld and was the photo editor there for 20 years. I helped build Transworld into the largest skateboarding magazine at that time. I had a lot of say at the mag and helped bring up a few of the young photographers and built a strong staff. Dave Swift, Mike Mihaly and I decided to leave and start our own mag after Time Warner/AOL laid off our publisher who was a friend and we just wanted to try something new.
Tell us about getting “The Skateboard Mag” started.
I was told for years that we couldn’t do a magazine, but that turned out to be wrong. Funding and staffing were the most important elements we needed and we had those. I was the newly designated Production Manager and went to a printer and a pre-press house that had worked with TW in the past and they were into producing the magazine, we had some money.
I would say that advertising was the hardest part, but I think the hype of us all leaving TW and a new mag coming out turned skate companies on and we got them to back us. Having the staff in different places and not in a central office makes it a bit more difficult to keep on track. I miss the days when we were all in one building.
If you had to describe your body of work to someone who you just met – what would you say it’s all about?
I was just trying to document the skating that was going on around me and working at a magazine and learning about photography and the history of it at school taught me how to make my skate photography look better. The handful of photographers I came up with in the early 80s borrowed from the 70s photogs who preceded us and we figured out how to shoot street skating, work with artificial lighting and finally moved into digital photography. I think we brought some art into the documentation of the activity.
Of all your photos, which one would you identify as your favorite?
There are a few that I like, the Swank Push, Chris Miller Pole Cam, Hosoi Powerslide, Bones Brigade Handplant Chin Ramp shot, Mullen silhouette, Mike Smith acid drop, a few others. Of my fine art photos, I really like the one of my daughter at the water’s edge and the Doves flying and some of my abstracts of signage.
Through all of your experiences in photography what has been your favorite moment?
In skateboarding, I really loved traveling for the magazine and shooting free film and meeting all of the great people and seeing new places. Some favorite events might be the Chin Ramp shoot in 1986 and making 2 magazines from the start. I began this career out of a hobby in 1979, there was no such job as Skate Photographer. I was so lucky to have been in the right place, that place being the Del Mar Skate Ranch at the right time. All of my friends now are the people I met back then. I met my wife at a coffee shop near the park.
Through your eyes, why do you think people are so connected to the skateboard community?
Skateboarding is about freedom, personal freedom, it’s addictive and I think it’s really cool.
When you’re not shooting skate photos, what type of work do you like to get into?
I shoot portraits, abstracts, architecture and landscapes. It grounds me, meditative.
I shoot film.
Also selling my prints online.
Do you have any words of advice?
Remember where you came from and who helped you out along the way and pass your knowledge on.