We recently had a chance to chat with legendary skate photographer, J. Grant Brittain. Grant has seen and done it all in the world of skate photography. We met up with Grant and the crew from Palomar Films during the filming of The World is a Skatepark: Photographer J. Grant Brittain. This documentary profiles Grant and tells the story of his impact on the skateboarding world. 

Check out the full documentary and ​then scroll down for the exclusive interview.

 

Boosted: Hey Grant it’s a pleasure to speak with you. You must have seen the skate world change a ton over the course of your career. What have been some of the biggest changes you have seen in the sport?

Grant: I skated as a kid, and in 1978, I starting working at the Del Mar Skate Ranch where I met a bunch of pro skaters. Del Mar was the Mecca of Skateboarding, so to speak, and I worked there for six years. During that time I borrowed my roommates’ camera and started getting into photography. In the late ’70s the sport dwindled and no one would come to the park, but we stayed open even if there were just two people skating. 

In ’84 when McGill threw down the McTwist (an aerial 540) it really helped spur the progression of skating. It inspired skaters to put together series of more complex aerial maneuvers. Del Mar Skate Ranch closed down in ‘87 – bulldozed along with the other 1970s parks, so skaters took to the street and starting building backyard ramps. The last 40 years have just been steady progression from the ’80s onwards – handrails, vert, huge gaps, all of that.

How did you find the change from film to digital photography?

I was probably the second skate photographer to jump to digital. In the late ’90s I was photo editor at Transworld Skateboarding Magazine. I borrowed a digital camera from the crew at Transworld Snowboarding and took it to a contest in Oceanside. I think it was a 4.2 megapixel Canon 1D.

Because of the speed, I was able to shoot sequences all weekend. I think I shot jpeg’s, not even RAW images. I had no idea what I was doing.  But when I got back to the office I said, “We gotta switch over.” We were using about 100 rolls a month on film per staff photographer, and that was expensive. So really I made the switch out of necessity. 

But I wasn’t resistant to the change at all. I was the oldest skate photographer and I didn’t want to be the old curmudgeon not wanting to change. There was a little resistance early on, but it’s been like that through the history of photography. I mean, Ansel Adams shot Polaroids, but I bet he would shoot digital today. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.

Do you see any of that same reaction in the skate community when new innovations come out?

In the ’70s,  boards were pretty much toys. The boards were not great quality and they would fall apart all the time. They just weren’t made for the new style of skating that was starting to emerge. When skaters themselves got involved in the design process, the board shapes changed and got way, way better.

Then Rocco (Steve Rocco, founder of World Industries) came onto the scene and changed the shape of boards yet again. He upset the skate industry with his designs because they were a radically different shape. But they ultimately became the blueprint for current-day trick boards. 

Now with street skating, it’s all about the strength and pop. Things are always changing, but people seem to be more open to different shapes now.

Are there any tricks that you were the first to photograph? Did you realize the significance at the time?

I photographed McGill’s first 540 (the McTwist) in the US, after he first landed it in Sweden. When McGill landed it, Neil Blender ran out of the park screaming. It was amazing. People realized that this was a Big Thing. The shot was on the cover of Transworld. I don’t have it anymore – lost in the annals of time. 

I also spent 10 years shooting with 4 different skaters attempt the 900. Tony Hawk was the first person to land it at the X Games. I was there, but just before Tony did it, a cop kicked me out because I didn’t have the right press credential. I couldn’t really argue, but I would have loved to have captured it.

But, over the years I shot a lot with Tony. He invented over 100 tricks so there is bound to be some firsts in my garage somewhere. For me it’s more about making an image, than the image itself that stands the test of time.

Other notable firsts…I shot the Leap of Faith with Jamie Thomas, which inspired a lot of guys doing Big Gaps. I also shot the first Pole Cam photo with Chris Miller – kind of like the first selfie stick I guess, but I got it from surfing. 

What is your favorite trick to shoot?

The Stalefish. I love a good Stalefish. It’s in your face. No butt shot.

You recently shot Andy Mac riding Boosted Mini X in a bowl, during the filming of a recent documentary about your photography career. Tell us about that.

We were all stoked to see him bust out the Boosted board. It was really surprising and fun to see. We made a neat Stalefish photo with it.

Boosted boards are designed primarily for getting around, but you have now been the first to photograph Andy Mac on a Boosted board doing a Stalefish. Do you think we may see more of this type of behavior in years to come?

Yeah, because with social media there’s no limit to what people will try. Everyone is trying to outdo each other. There will be other stunts documented.

According to the very strict guidelines laid down by the skate community, if a new trick is performed the skater should name it. Andy did the very first Stalefish on an electric board and you photographed it. What do you think of the Electro Stalefish, or even the Electric Eel, for a name?

Still on a skateboard, so same name. If it’s done on a snowboard, it’s still a Stalefish, same thing with surfing, the rules still apply.

You can see more of Grant’s work and purchase some original prints from Grant on his online photography store.

https://jgrantbrittainphotos.com/

If you need some skate tunes, Grant has you covered. Jam along to what he listens to and maybe you’ll become a legendary photographer too.