Famed skateboarding photographer shares iconic images in Encinitas
J. Grant Brittain, legendary skateboarding photographer and former photo editor of TransWorld SKATEboarding magazine, will be at the Encinitas Library July 30 to sign copies of his book, “PUSH: J. Grant Brittain—’80s Skateboarding Photography.”
Sure, J. Grant Brittain could kick and push his way around on a skateboard, too, but he fell in love with the click of the camera that allowed him to capture the artistry of the sport.
“I skated and surfed as a kid, and was lucky enough to live next door to a pro skateboarder, Wally Inouye, and he got me a job at the Del Mar Skate Ranch when it opened in 1978,” says Brittain. “About six months later, I borrowed my roommate’s camera and was immediately hooked. I just wanted to shoot my friends skating and it looked like a cool thing to do (and the chance of getting hit in the head by a bailed board just added to the excitement).”
Those friends from the 1980s would catapult skateboarding to the global stage and include names like Tony Hawk, Natas Kaupas, Mark Gonzales, and Steve Caballero. They’re among a number of others featured in Brittain’s book, “PUSH: J. Grant Brittain—‘80s Skateboarding Photography,” and he’ll be at the Encinitas Library at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 30, to share some of his photos, answer questions about his career, and sign copies of the book.
Brittain, 68, lives in Encinitas with his wife, Laura, and has a daughter, Zoe, and a son, Sage. He took some time to talk about his career, his book, and proving people wrong when they tried to discourage his talent.
Q: Your book, “PUSH: J. Grant Brittain — ‘80s Skateboarding Photography,” focuses on the beginning of your photography career, capturing iconic skaters and images during the 1980s. Why was it time to publish your photos in this book?
A: Every photographer dreams of publishing a book of their photography and I first discussed it with my designer friend, Josh Higgins, in 2003. When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of free time to pull it together. I knew that I needed to share my photos all in one place — a book for the skaters who grew up with these photos on their walls, and to expose the younger skateboarders to a bit of skateboarding history.
Q: As you were going through 40 years’ worth of photos, what was it about those images from the ‘80s, specifically, that stood out to you?
A: I originally wanted to do a 40-year retrospective of my work, but there were just too many important photos. We realized that we needed to narrow it down and focus on one decade of my skateboarding photos, and the 1980s were a very important period in skateboarding. It was the era that birthed modern street skating and vertical skating went from the basic aerials and boards, and boards were being flipped and spun. Skateboarding evolved from the toy and sidewalk surfing, to a multi-dimensional self-expression; the skateboard is the paintbrush or guitar. I consider the 1980s to be the golden age of skateboarding, which was actually our working title for the book.
What I love about Encinitas...
I grew up in Fallbrook and started surfing at 14 years old, and all I could ever think about was getting to the beach. I moved to Cardiff in 1974, fresh out of high school, and knew I had finally made it. Every time I drive over the hill from my house in Encinitas and see the Pacific, I count my lucky stars.
Q: The photos you were taking created a cultural legacy; was there ever a point when you realized that this was happening? That your work was meaningful in this way?
A: When I began, I was just shooting my friends, locals, and the pros for fun. I worked at the park every day and would sneak out to shoot photos during my shift. In 1983, Larry Balma, the owner of Tracker Trucks (the axle component on skateboards), asked me if I wanted to submit some of my photos for a “newsletter” that they were working on, which turned out to be the codename for the first issue of Transworld SKATEboarding magazine. For the first couple of years, we didn’t really know if the magazine, or even skateboarding, would last. Skateboarding has a history of booming every few years and then retreating from public view. We were just stoked we could pay rent, travel, and get free film. We saw skateboarding go from an activity that only skateboarders even cared about, to the Olympics and the X-Games moneymaker that it is now. I never thought that I would be riding this wave 44 years later. I am very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
Q: In the introduction to the book, Miki Vuckovich (one of many photographers who praise your mentorship), says that you’ve shaped generations of photographers in the visual telling of the story of skateboarding. From your perspective, what is the story of skateboarding? How would you describe it?
A: Through my photos, I always just wanted to get people to want to go skateboarding or pick up a camera and start shooting. I always shared the technical side of it freely with the younger photographers and I’m stoked that many of them went on in their own photographic careers.
The story is that anyone can learn to roll on a skateboard, regardless of size, gender, race, or economic status, and you don’t need a skatepark, team, or uniform. A board, two trucks, four wheels, and grip tape is all you need to roll down the sidewalk and feel free: it’s quite liberating. A lot of skaters talk about how skateboarding has given them purpose and direction and even saved their lives, I am not kidding. It’s a great outlet for kids who feel like they don’t fit in because they’re a little different or aren’t a jock — you know, the outcasts, or artists, musicians, or yes, photographers. Being a skateboarder automatically puts you in that club and you have an immediate connection to a whole lot of friends.
Q: We hear about fashion designers and photographers finding models as muses for their work — who are some of the skateboarders who’ve really helped inspire your creativity over the years?
A: I have to hand the credit to my friends and the Del Mar Skate Ranch, locals who let me shoot them throwing their bodies around, over and over. In the beginning, my photos were terrible, but they were kind enough to let me practice on them. I didn’t have much money, so lots of times, I gave them the color slides that weren’t quite as good as the ones I kept. My teacher at Palomar College, Kean Wilcox, became my mentor and he taught me photo history and pre-visualization, or what’s in my head before even clicking the camera shutter. Also, working with the art director at Transworld (David Carson) really got me thinking and seeing in a more graphic way. I started thinking more about the layout and shooting the photo to work with the printed space.
Of course, working at the skatepark, and then at the magazine, gave me the perfect position to shoot every one of the world’s greatest skateboarders: Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Chris Miller, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Natas Kaupas, Mark Gonzales— and that was just the ‘80s. The skaters made my job easy, in a lot of ways. They knew what looked good in a photo and there weren’t many that I could take a bad photo of. A couple of the photos that stand out as collaborative projects are the Chris Miller pole cam photo and the Bones Brigade “Four Handplants on the Chin Ramp” photo. Everything just all came together perfectly.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: Perseverance, that everyone starts at the bottom in any endeavor, and to never give up.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: I had a college photo instructor tell me that I had no talent and that I should give up photography — that made me want to prove him wrong. My art teacher, Doug Durrant, told me to start signing my name with my first initial, “J” (for Jordan) up front. He introduced me to everyone as J. Grant Brittain.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I grew up in Fallbrook.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Hanging out with my family, friends, and my dog; listening to music; maybe go for a surf; and take some photos, if possible.
Sign up for the Encinitas Advocate newsletter
Top stories from Encinitas every Friday for free.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Encinitas Advocate.