Featured Photographer: J. Grant Brittain - A Legacy of Influence

 
 ©Tim Scott

©Tim Scott

It’s 1980-something and I’m a skinny, buck-toothed, shy American teenager growing up in Asia. I was a nerdy reclusive kid, pretty much as far from being a cool, California-surfer type as anyone on the planet. But I could dream. I longed desperately to be a “normal” American kid–even though I had no idea what that really meant. But in my dreams, normal American kids had long flowing hair and rode skateboards on the boardwalks and in secret backyard pools in California.

Skateboarding had just exploded on the scene and all of us kids were trying our best to be as cool as what we saw in pictures. I lived and dreamed through magazines. In those days magazines were everything. They were our way of connecting with the outside world. It’s hard to believe now-in the age of electronic access to everything-but in those days we lived, learned and dreamed about the future through what we saw and read in magazines. But even magazines were hard to get where we were in the Philippines. The only way we could get them was to visit the military installation, Clark Air Force Base, and have someone buy them for us, and they were not cheap. But I begged, borrowed and cajoled my parents into buying them for me at every opportunity. I read the stories and looked at the photographs time and time again until the magazine either completely fell apart or one of my friends “borrowed” it.

Transworld Skateboarding was one of the most valuable magazines in my collection. Laying in my bed late at night hiding under the covers with my flashlight looking at the photos I dreamed of living in California and sidewalk surfing on the boardwalks of some neglected beach town. I pleaded with my parents to let me grow my hair longer and I bought Sun-In in the hope of achieving that blonde surfer look that I saw so often in the magazines. We would take our skateboards out and set up ramps and try as we could to emulate the photos that we saw in the magazine. It was a dream that I was determined to live and I still have the scars to prove it.

So many photographers through the years have affected how we each individually see the world, even if we never think about who those photographers actually are. J. Grant Brittain is one of those artists and photographers who definitely shaped my view of the world through his work. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue who J. Grant Brittain was until much later in life and yet I knew so many of his photographs by heart.

“Take a darkroom class. Working in the darkroom teaches you so much about light.”

Grant, a native Californian, found his love of photography and skateboarding in the late 1970’s while working at the Del Mar Skate Ranch. As an art major at Palomar College Grant says, “I went to a 2-year college for 10 years”. In 1979 he met Sonny Miller, a skater, surfer and photographer. Sonny took him into the Palomar College darkroom in 1981 and from there he was hooked.

As so many artists are, he also was influenced by those who went before him. It was the time of Dogtown and the Z-Boys and people like C. R. Stecyk III and Glen Friedman had set the stage with stories and images of so many of the pioneers who have helped to make skateboarding what it is today. Not having any idea about angles of perspective, f-stops or shutter speeds Grant started at the beginning, by experimenting, asking questions and trial and error. Between the classes at school and talking with other photographers who took the time to answer beginner questions his vision and skills grew. After six years of working at the skatepark and seeing the locals skate as well as being able to see the visiting pros and to watch the “pro” photographers shooting his vision was beginning to form.

In addition to this he also studied design and the history of photography at school. “I was like a sponge”, Grant says, “I was just kind of taking it all in. I like Bauhaus and I like the FSA and all of these different movements in photography and art.” Adding these experiences to his consistent reading of Skateboarder Magazine–one of the first and only skateboarding magazines at the time–all added to the visual language that Grant would be able to bring to his photography. 

“I believe everything is pretty much an accident, and I’m stoked. Because I would have never thought that I would be doing what I’m doing for a living. And to be so on fire for it too? I’m always thinking about photography, always.”

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One of the things that I’ve always loved about Grant’s work is his ability to go beyond just documenting a moment and be able to both make you want to be there–as well as tell a story. Great skate photography goes well beyond just a cool photo of a skateboarder in midair and allows you to see and to feel a bit of what it was like to actually be there. Whether he used background elements, angles, motion blur and any other tool in his arsenal, he was able to make images that took me deeper into that moment and fed my dreams of being like the people he photographed. Unfortunately, I was always a crap skateboarder, but it sure was fun to dream.

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In 1983 Grant helped found Transworld Skateboarding Magazine and over the next 20 years he served as Senior Photographer and Photo Editor. His images graced the covers of over 60 issues during that time. It was a time of neon, synthesized music and truly weird fashion and we loved it. Skateboarders were the rebels, the outcasts and we reveled in it. But still, it was the photographs that stoked our dreams and drive to at least try the things we saw on the pages of TWS.

While Grant shoots both film and digital today he has definitely been shaped and his vision guided by his experiences in the early analog world. He teaches photography and gives workshops and is often asked what camera his students should buy. He recommends just “picking up an $80 used camera like an old Minolta or old Nikon and that will slow you down.” He adds, “Take a darkroom class. Working in the darkroom teaches you so much about light.” Wise words indeed.

At 63, Grant is still shooting, fine-art as well as skateboarding, and is on a first name basis with the skaters that we all grew up with and now see and hear about frequently in this celebrity driven world. People like Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Billy Ruff, Steve Caballero and too many others to list, but through all of his incredible experiences and famous friends he still remains a bit shy, definitely down to earth and a genuinely nice guy. 

I was blessed to be able to spend the day with Grant in Encinitas at the Nixon headquarters for this interview. It was so cool to see how everyone at Nixon and even people on the street all knew Grant and greeted and talked with him like an old friend. As I look at his work, history and his still glowing passion as a photographer it makes me think about my work and my legacy as a photographer. I can only hope that I can accomplish a small part of what Grant has and the timeless stories that he creates. He has inspired me for over 30 years now and still going strong.

“I believe everything is pretty much an accident, and I’m stoked. Because I would have never thought that I would be doing what I’m doing for a living. And to be so on fire for it too? I’m always thinking about photography, always.”

So, Mr. Brittain, I thank you. You have so much of my respect for your passion and dedication to your craft. I look forward to seeing what you do in the future and am honored to now call you a friend.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Scott is a working creative director in the world of advertising and design with an obsessive passion for photography. Tim’s dedication to all things visual and story-telling has led him through the top agencies in NYC as a creative director and art director working with brands, global and national. Tim now lives and works from the edge of Los Angeles County in Pomona, California with his beautiful wife Rachel. He is a writer and curator for Analog Forever Magazine. Connect with Tim Scott on his Website and on Instagram!