By Kelly Davis
Grant Brittain by Zach Cordner
Name: Grant Brittain
Course: Crash Course: the Art of Skateboard Photography
To say Grant Brittain was at the right place at the right time would be an understatement. In 1978, at age 25, he got a job at the Del Mar Skate Ranch. On a whim, Brittain borrowed his roommate’s camera — he didn’t even know how to load the film — and started shooting photos of the skatepark’s patrons, initially for fun and then professionally as photo editor for the pioneering magazine TransWorld SKATEboarding.
Brittain’s body of work includes iconic images like the photo of his friend Todd Swank under a freeway in Del Mar and a photo of a very (very) young Tony Hawk. Now, after nearly four decades documenting skate culture, Brittain’s poring over his archive for a book and teaching folks that there’s more to skate photography than simply capturing a perfect action shot.
Here's a sampling of Grant's work:
So, you picked up a camera kind of late — at age 25. What made you decide to start taking photographs?
I got a job at Del Mar Skate Ranch when it opened in 1978… and seeing all the pros coming through, I just thought I would try my hand at it. I borrowed my roommate’s camera. He loaded it for me — I didn't know how to do anything — and I just shot one roll, and got it developed…. That was in 1979. And I just kind of got hooked on it as a hobby. A year-and-a-half after that, a friend, Sonny Miller, took me into the darkroom and I printed some pictures off my negatives, and then I was totally hooked.
What did that first roll of film look like?
It was color slide [film]. I still have that roll…. Two of the photos came out good. It was the proper exposure, they were in focus. I was pretty stoked. But there was no such job as skate photographer back then. You didn't really think, Oh, I want to be a skate photographer. It was more, like, I just want to shoot my friends and the people coming through the skatepark. I was in a good place for it.
What do you enjoy most about skate photography?
Probably just the creativity of all the people. Everybody's into art, music and photography, animation…. The people I met back in the ’80s and at Del Mar are probably still my best friends. And then working for a magazine… I got to travel around the world. It’s a strange way to make a living.
What advice would you give someone looking to enter this field?
I would say to learn everything you can — video, writing code, marketing. The thing that I never learned except on the job was business. There were no photography business classes back in those days…. And now it’s all social media. I don’t work for any magazines right now, and I like it. I’m self-employed and I'm doing shows and working on my archive and working on a book. You can't just be a skate photographer because you can't make a living at it. You need to find some way to make money, too, unless it's just a hobby…. I had to reinvent myself when I left [The Skateboard Mag] last November.
What did you decide to do?
I'm just getting more into my own brand because I have this archive from the ’80s and ’90s and onward. I have a piece of history. I’m able to market that piece of history and sell it online and have shows and do workshops, and I do the class at UC San Diego Extension and just kind of promoting myself. I'm still working for companies like Nixon and Vans, but I'm really focusing on what I have — I have 38 years of photography that I'm able to market, mainly due to the internet. It's all Instagram and Facebook and tumblr and Twitter. I do it all….
With students, they'll say, “I want to work for a magazine” and I’m, like, “Why?” I mean, you can work for a magazine, but magazines want everything for free and they not only want it for print, they want it for their Instagram posts.
In what other ways is your field changing?
I was the oldest skate photographer, even back in the ’80s and ’90s. I had five years on everybody and I didn't want to be that old curmudgeon who was, like, “Screw digital!” I jumped right in; I didn’t want to get left behind. Even when I switched all my classes to photo classes at Palomar, I took every class, even classes I didn't think I needed…. I wanted to be able to do it all because I wanted to travel and just get myself out there. I always said yes, I never said no.
Just never give up. Don’t take no for an answer. It’s perseverance more than anything, because people get discouraged. With kids now, they want everything instantly. Kids will ask me, “How much can I make as a photographer?” And I say, “Do you have a camera?” And they go, “No.” And I say, “Dude, at least you’ve got to get a camera.” Everybody starts at the bottom — that’s what I always tell kids.…
I tell people, go to Encinitas Camera and get a $50 camera. And take a darkroom class. You’re going to learn so much about light, and about exposure and composition. Now we do all our composing and our fixing in Photoshop. And I see a lot of haphazard stuff — even me. It’s so much easier easier shooting a photo now because I don't have to worry about having the lighting just perfect.
What do you like most about working for Extension?
It's really rewarding…. The last two semesters, we spent one day in the classroom and the second two days we went out to two different skate parks and I got some guys I know who skate really well and are willing to work for prints…. The skaters are really open to it, and they're willing to work with a group of people and do the same trick over and over again. I take my own lights, and loan out my fisheye, because a lot of people don't have fisheye lenses. When I posted the class on my Instagram, I had students who took me before telling people in the comments, “You have to take this class!”
I just really try to get people to break the rules. What I like about it is that people are open, and there's all ages. I had a women in the first semester, I think, and she was my age — I'm 62. She was the oldest student I had. She had photos in Barrio Logan of the new skatepark that wasn't even open yet. And I go, “How did you get in there?” And she goes, “I crawled through a hole in the fence.” I was, like, “You get an A in the class just for climbing through that hole!”
It's amazing — you get people to really push themselves and be creative. One guy had a point-and-shoot and he was actually able to work with [it] and shoot it on manual, and then had another strobe [light] going. They were just creative with the gear that they had. One guy shot polaroids. It's not just about action — it's about portraits and lifestyle and shadows and grind marks on a rail. You don’t need a high-end camera to do art.
Learn more about our Photography programs and courses on our website, or contact the department at firstname.lastname@example.org or 858-534-5760.