10 Minutes with legendary skate photographer J. Grant Brittain on nuance, memory-card crashes, and his new Arkitip zine
If you’re reading this, you probably already know the pedigree of J. Grant Brittain. If you don't, you should. Being in the right place at the right time (late '70s – early '80s/Del Mar Skate Ranch) sparked a passion in photography that led him to become one of the founding fathers of Transworld Skateboarding and The Skateboard Mag. He is one of the most influential skate photographers of all time and has captured some of the most iconic images in the sport. He recently put out a zine with Arkitip called 80/90 and we caught up with him to find out about his first zine, film vs. digital, and the jitters he still gets while waiting to see a photo.
Not too many people—let alone skate photographers—can look back on a career that spans decades. You’ve been publishing monthly magazines since the early eighties. Why do a zine now?
I think Damon Way set me up with it. He told me about it when I was up in San Francisco. He asked if I was interested, and I said, “Sure.” Then Scott Sant’Angelo from Arkitip contacted me, and it went from there.
What’s the idea with 80/90?
It’s just an old style black-and-white zine. Most of them were black and white photos to begin with, but there were a couple of color ones I wanted to use, so I just converted them.
Are all the photos shot in the eighties and nineties?
All but one, yeah. I shot a skate photo of Rodney Mullen in 2012 that I wanted to use.
What are some of your favorite portraits that made it into the zine?
I put Tony [Hawk] in Sanoland, the Brian Lotti doll heads photo. There’s one with Natas, Vallely, and Gonz…
How did you pick the photos for this zine?
Basically I picked my favorite photos. I had to toss a few out. The Salton Sea photo that’s on the cover, that’s actually a color photo.
Let’s talk about the zine you started out doing. What year was that?
It was right around the time Transworld started. Let’s see, I was living with Bryan Ridgeway at the time. It was probably ’83. Almost everybody had a zine at the time. At first it was Air Zine, then it was called Air Photo Zine.
How long did it last?
I only made three issues. You know, I can’t even remember if I released the third issue. Maybe it was just two.
How lo-fi was it?
I used to use those label-maker guns, a lot of collage-y clip art. It was pretty fun. I had a Tony Hawk interview in one, and a Gator interview in another.
What makes the quintessential skate photo? Is it the trick? Subject? Landscape? Composure?
Yes, to all the above. With me it’s a lot about composition. Skate photography hasn’t really changed in the last 20 years. It’s mostly the same angles, same fisheye lenses. The camera gear has changed, though, and lighting has changed. It’s action and composition, and little things, too. Like a guy’s hand, or facial feature.
Aren’t those unpredictable, though? Little happy accidents?
Well, yes, but say, on a frontside air—if the skater early-releases, the difference that makes can really make the photo.
When you look back at the photos you selected for this zine, can you see your evolution as a photographer?
I think time changes everything. I’ll look at photos that I really didn’t like back them, but my tastes have changed. Back then, we didn’t think it was history, we were just hoping our film came out. We were just shooting for fun.
How often do you get out to shoot these days?
I’ll shoot a couple times a month.
Do you ever go back to film?
I was shooting film for the first time in 8 years, and I just sent the film to LA. So now I have this nervous anticipation. I’ve gotten spoiled with digital.
Are you worried that the photos won’t come out? After all these years?
Sure. You know back then, if you blew something you blew it. You shot a lot of photos and hope something came out. Through the years you lose photos. Even today. Nowadays your card or your computer can crash. In fact, the first couple months I shot digi, my card crashed and I lost a couple tricks. It was an old IBM card. So I just had to eat those.
How did you deal with that?
It’s a bummer to lose photos. There’ve been times, even with film. I’ve shot 20 rolls of film and then the guy makes his trick, and you didn’t have the frames left on that roll, so you don’t get the ride-away.
Has that happened to you?
Sure. Screwing up photos is just part of skate photography. If that happens, you’ve just got to go back and get the trick. I think the most I’ve ever gone back was 3 times.
Who was the skater?
It was Dorian Tucker. The shot was at night, and he was wearing all black. There was a green fluorescent light behind him. Each time I wasn’t using long enough exposures. Ultimately I just popped him with my radio slave.
What else do you like to shoot besides skateboarding?
I really like portraiture, abstracts, some landscapes…
Do you find that it helps to occasionally cleanse your palate by shooting things other than skateboarding?
Yeah, you need to mix it up a little bit from time to time. I still like to shoot skate photos, but not really street anymore. Ramp, bowl, backyard stuff—really anything where I don’t have to jump a fence.