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Trick Photography

In the ’70s and ’80s, J. Grant Brittain captured skateboarding's rise as a global sensation, becoming one of the most influential skate photographers of all time
Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain
J Grant Brittain photos

Sonny Miller, 1982 “I was an art major at Palomar College, and Sonny is the guy who took me into the dark room there for the first time in 1981,” Brittain says. “The next day, I changed my major to photography, and it’s been that way ever since. This bowl was in an avocado grove in Fallbrook. There was a drought in the ’70s so all the pools were empty. I knew guys with pilot’s licenses going up and looking for empty pools around North County.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

Summer ’78. J. Grant Brittain was living the surf life in Cardiff, splitting the $365-a-month rent for a three-bedroom house four ways (one guy in the garage, of course). The skaters who lived next door—one of whom was Tom “Wally” Inouye, an early pool skater and innovator of the wallride—asked Brittain if he might want to work at the new Del Mar Skate Ranch Inouye had helped design. Brittain agreed, not knowing he was about to kick off a four-decade-and-counting career as one of the most influential skate photographers to ever hold a camera.

“I started working at the skate park the second day they were open, in August 1978,” Brittain says. “The first day they had sent me home because they thought I was stoned. But I was just tired and red-eyed from surfing.” Six months later, in February 1979, he borrowed his roommate’s camera and shot his first roll of film (Kodachrome) at the park. He was 23.

Born and raised in Fallbrook, Brittain worked at Del Mar Skate Ranch for six years, managing the pro shop and even living there for eight months as the night security guard while saving for an apartment. He slept on the pool table. All the while, he was taking pictures.

Some of the young guys he captured would grow up to become the best in the world. Culture-defining skaters. It wasn’t long before his work was noticed.

“In 1983, Larry Balma, who owned Tracker Trucks in Oceanside, came to the park and asked if I’d like to give photos to a newsletter he was putting out,” Brittain says. “So I said sure. But when I got there, there was this whole 40-page magazine laid out on the wall. At the time, the only skate mag was Thrasher out of SF.”

The magazine became Transworld Skateboarding, one of the most popular skate mags of all time. Brittain served as photo editor there for 20 years, helping visually define skating in its most formative years.

We asked him for a selection of his favorite shots from the area throughout his career. Here’s what we could fit.

J Grant Brittain photos, kodak

Kyle Jensen, 1979 “Everybody starts at the bottom. Everybody starts shooting their friends first. This is from the first roll of film I ever shot, working at the skate park in 1978. My roommate’s camera.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, del mar locals

Del Mar Locals, 1980 L to R: Stripes: David Eckles. (“He was a local skater. His dad would drop him off every day at the park. We stayed open till 11 at night, so we were like the babysitters. We had a snack bar, and there were arcade games.”) Yellow helmet: Tony Hawk. Back middle: Owen Nieder (pre-mohawk). Front middle: Kenny Stalmasky. Sweet ’80s mustache: Michael Stalmasky. Long Hair: Michael Stalmasky Jr. (“The two Stalmaksy kids were amateur skaters, then they became pros. Their dad is wearing roller skates. [Laughs]”)

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, chris miller

Chris Miller, 2004 Washington Street. “That’s a DIY spot. Those guys started building it secretly using trash and stuff to build the forms, and then the city and Caltrans shut it down. So they worked on it with the city. It’s still there. Real piece of San Diego history.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, tod swank

Tod Swank, 1987 This image was made in Del Mar in a location Brittain had scouted for weeks while getting his usual coffee. Titled “Push,” it became one of one Brittain’s most iconic images, gracing the cover of his book by the same name, as well as a very controversial cover of Transworld Skateboarding. Black and white? No trick? On the cover of a mag? “I was just trying to say that it’s all about getting from point A to point B. Everybody does this. Everybody pushes, you know?”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, jamie thomas

Jamie Thomas, 1997 “Leap of Faith,” shot at Point Loma High School. Another of Brittain’s most recognizable images. “This was the first time I felt like, ʻShould we have a paramedic here?ʼ [Laughs] At the time, that was one of the biggest—the first biggest, you know—drops like that. I have a sequence of it. He goes right through his board, snaps it.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, owen nieder

Owen Nieder, 1983 Del Mar Skate Ranch. “Owen was one of the first punk rock kids back then. You weren’t supposed to skate at the park without a helmet, and we were always trying to get around it, even me as the manager. I would practice a lot on him. I shot all the locals and friends to see what the angles were.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, steve steadham

Steve Steadham, 1988 Leucadia. “He’s a pro skater, one of the top African American skaters during that time. He built that DIY ramp right next to the freeway.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, carabeth burnside

Carabeth Burnside, 2010 Encinitas YMCA. “During the early ’90s, she was one of the top women’s snowboarders and skateboarders. I shot this from above, from up on top of the ramp.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, tony hawk

Tony Hawk, 1987 “That’s ’80s. Total ’80s. [Laughs] It’s under that old bridge at Torrey Pines on the Coast Highway. And we just wanted a shot with his board with his logo on it. I think that same day we shot a big session at Del Mar. I probably have 15 different things from that day at Del Mar Ranch.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, shaun white

Shaun White, 1999 “That’s the Encinitas YMCA. I have older photos than that of Shaun White, and I didn’t even know who he was. I just wrote ‘Kid’ on it. [Laughs] And then I realized. I found out who he was. He’s big news now.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, kien lieu

Kien Lieu, 1998 “You can see Qualcomm behind there. There was this bank in the parking lot, and a lot of skaters would skate it. He’s just doing a kick flip on it. He could ollie higher than anybody pretty much. He’s known for ollieing high over things. Picnic tables, rails, cars. He’s known for his pop.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, andy macdonald

Andy Macdonald, 2004 Why is this image unique? “Um, because he’s on a crutch. [Laughs] I don’t know why he did that. He just put his skateboard trucks on a crutch. Originally, I think he was gonna dress up like a doctor or something. And then we didn’t do that.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, pedro delphino

Pedro Delphino, 2014 “That’s in Pala. That vacant house has this pool, and it [has] been buried so many times and skaters have dug it up each time. See how it’s kind of brown-toned a little bit? That’s from the dirt. Sometimes it’ll be buried for, like, five years, and then somebody will dig it out. And they gotta dig it out by hand, too. It’s probably been ridden since the ’80s or ’90s, so 30 years now.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos, bob burnquist

Bob Burnquist, 2002 “That’s at his house in Vista. It’s like a Hot Wheels loop. He would do it switch, too. He was probably the first to switch dance a loop. He could do anything, any way, at any time. He had a real rubbery style, you know, really fluid style, but he did a lot of technical tricks. He was just a highly technical skater.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

J Grant Brittain photos

J. Grant Brittain, 1974 “Skateboarding started in La Jolla in 1947. It was the Wind and Sea guys; they were the first ones to make skateboards. It was a 2×4 with their sister’s roller skate wheels on it. This photo is at Fallbrook High. And that was a homemade board I made in my friend’s garage. I don’t think there were even skateboard trucks at that time. You put on roller skate trucks, and Cadillac was the first urethane wheel made. Back then before that, it was clay wheels. And before that, it was metal wheels. In the background, you can see my ’57 Chevy. I bought it from some old lady—you can see my surfboard on top.”

Photo Credit: J. Grant Brittain

By Mateo Hoke

Mateo Hoke is San Diego Magazine’s executive editor. His books include Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary, and Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation.

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