1.09.2018

chrome ball interview #111: j. grant brittain

Full Bleed. 

this photo: Vuckovich, all others: Brittain

So going all the way back, what was the best and worst thing about working at the legendary Del Mar Skate Ranch?

Well, I started working at Del Mar in August of ’78, only a few days after it opened. Wally Inouye actually helped get me the gig. But it’s not like Del Mar was some glamorous industry job. Skateboarding was dying at the time and I was just a young kid anyway. I wasn’t even taking photos yet... not until February, 1979. But I did it all there, man. And not just the skatepark either, there was also the mini-golf course, the arcade and the pro shop that I had to tend to as well.

The initial attraction was being able to skate for free, obviously. But in retrospect, I think the most beneficial thing in the long-run was meeting so many people that I’m still friends with today. It blows my mind to think of how many people from back then are still part my life.

The worst part was just the typical stuff that comes along with working at any skatepark. People sneaking in and having to call them out for not paying. Cleaning up the park. Sweeping the bowls. Someone craps on the bathroom floor and writes on the wall with the crap. No one wants to be the guy dealing with that stuff.  

You also had to do night security there, too. I’m not sure if a lot people know that… but it actually worked out in my favor because I needed a place to live for a while. As I was saving up to get an apartment, I did night security and slept on the pool table there for 8 months. So I literally lived at the skatepark for a while and took showers at the trailer park next door. That was gnarly.

But yeah, I worked there for years. And even after I quit, I was still there all the time anyway to shoot photos.

Wally Inouye

So you start shooting in ’79, was this always an artistic endeavor or possibly more about documentation at first? Did you have any interest in photography before working at Del Mar?

I always thought I was going to be an artist. I grew up drawing and had always planned on working in the arts somehow. I originally wanted to be a cartoonist but looking back on it, I don’t think I was all that good at it. (laughs)

I never really shot photos before Del Mar. I had an Instamatic camera when I was a kid and shot some family photos on vacation, but that was about it.

Photography was all just for fun. There was no such thing as a “skate photographer” back then, that wasn’t something you could do for a living. There were photographers in the ‘70s but they’d all split after skateboarding died. You could count on one hand how many skate photographers there were in the early ‘80s. So no, I didn’t really have any plans for this.

I didn’t take it seriously until around ’81, when Sonny Miller asked if I wanted to go check out a darkroom to print some of my negatives. I was shooting a lot of negative film back then because it was cheaper. We ended up in the darkroom at Palomar College, where I was also taking general education and art classes. I had no idea what I was doing but as soon as I saw my photos come up in the developer, I knew right away that photography was what I wanted to do. It really was a light bulb moment for me.

Luckily, this was right at the beginning of my semester, so within a week, I’d changed all of my classes to photography courses. I knew absolutely nothing about shooting photos so I was basically starting from the ground up. But with my art background and being surrounded by so much skating, I was able to translate my ideas into photography more and more as I began figuring out how cameras worked.

Jim Thiebaud

So when did “photographer” become a serious career option? How did Transworld enter the picture?

Well, I’d always see Larry Balma from Tracker around and we were always pretty friendly. One day, he stopped by the park and started telling me about this newsletter he was working on. He knew that I was taking photos and wanted to know if I’d like to contribute anything for it. I’d had maybe 6 or so photos in Thrasher by that point… They’d hit me up whenever they needed a photo of someone down here, like Gator or Billy Ruff. But nothing much.

Not really thinking much about it, I gave Larry some photos for his little newsletter and went about my way. A couple months later, he stops by again and asks me to come by his office to check it out. So I drive up to Oceanside and as I’m walking into his office, I notice this thing on his wall. It’s all the pages laid out for what would be the first issue of Transworld. That’s when I quickly realized that “newsletter” was code for “magazine”.

But it was rough, man. The first issue got delivered to the park and I remember all of us just cracking up over it. Larry had obviously wanted to do a parent-friendly magazine and Transworld’s “Be Good, Be Good” was largely a reaction to Thrasher’s Indy stickers on breasts. I really wasn’t feeling “Skate and Create” at first and honestly, I wasn’t planning on giving them any more of my photos to use. But I quickly realized that if these guys didn’t run my photos, who would? Thrasher was so sporadic for me, not to mention all the way up north. Transworld was right here.

So as Larry asked for more photos, I found myself getting more and more involved. Over time, we also got Neil Blender, Lance, Bryan Ridgeway and Jinx working on it as well. You started getting “Aggro Zone”, GSD’s “Street Sheet” and even Tony’s “Beyond” column in there that helped out a lot.

Transworld started in ’83 and I worked at the magazine for about a year without really getting paid, until I finally went to Larry. I was 25-years-old, working a dead-end job at a skatepark that was already starting to have some trouble. Everything just felt so sketchy, I needed something more. So Larry started paying me $200 a month, which was nice, but I still had to work at the park to pay my rent.

Lance Mountain

With contests being so important back then, it had to be pretty rough traveling around for such a small operation.

Everything was so barebones back then. I remember going on one of my first trips to a contest down in Florida. That’s when it actually started to feel like a real job, but it was wild. G&S had bought my ticket and I flew down there with Jim Gray in the middle of the night. We spent the night in a bus station before hopping on a bus from Orlando to Jacksonville. Sleeping at people’s houses.

I had a total of 7 rolls of film for the first contest I went to, which isn’t very much at all. I definitely had to make every photo count.

All our trips were like that. It’s not like today where people stay in nice hotels with a per diem. We got none of that. I remember going with Neil on a road trip from San Diego to Santa Cruz and Larry gave us each $20 bucks. That was supposed to last us for three days on the road, including gas. We ended up sleeping in the car… this ugly duckling rental that looked exactly like the station wagon from Vacation. I’m stretched across the front seats, Neil’s in the back. Sleeping away in this ugly green station wagon with wood paneling.

It slowly got better as the industry started to grow. But yeah, it was pretty rough at first.

Neil Blender

How much of an influence would NorCal/SoCal politics play into things? How gnarly did the Thrasher/TWS rivalry get back in the day?

Honestly, a lot of what people have said about that rivalry over the years is a bunch of hype. It’s almost like “fake news” or something. That whole thing was supposedly started by Fausto to drum up emotion but we weren’t really in that fight. They’d call us the “glossy slick magazine”, which, for a photographer, is kind of a good thing. My photos will look better simply because they’re on better paper. That’s perfectly fine with me. But that kind of thing has always been their shtick, ya know? And they’ve been living off that for almost 40 years now.

I shot photos of everybody. If you ripped, I wanted the photo. Sure, I got vibed at contests by up north “industry guys” but the skaters were mostly cool.

I remember going to Bryce and Tommy’s “43” ramp in SF once. We shot a whole bunch of stuff that day and had a great time. But still, I ended up getting a call from someone asking me not to run the photos. Evidently someone from either Thrasher or Indy found out about our little shoot and was trying to put pressure on the guys. That’s lame.

Tommy Guerrero

I even visited Thrasher once. I didn’t care, I liked those guys and considered myself friends with most of them. But I got vibed pretty hard that day. I remember Fausto asking me what I was even doing there.

Something that I don’t think a lot of people realize is how close Mofo and I ended up getting back then, especially since he was kind of my main competition at the time. It’s funny because for years, I had Mofo on my mind constantly. Where is he standing? How is he going to shoot this? I remember watching him at contests, trying to figure out what shots he was going to have.

But I always liked him. And after a few years of going to all the same events together, we became good friends. In a way, we even started kinda working together at contests. We started splitting up vert contests to where halfway through the event, we made a point to switch sides. Because nobody wants all their shots from the same side of the ramp. I also know that we’d make a point to try not running the same tricks for our articles. But that was largely a matter of who’s issue came out first.

I see that rivalry as being more hype than anything else, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You always need a rivalry. But by the time it all came to a head at Del Mar with the Hosoi/Tony thing, it had gone too far. Tony getting booed at that contest? A lot of people were bummed on that. Because we’re all just skaters, man. I remember Tommy ended up apologizing for that in the magazine, which was really cool.

Christian Hosoi

As a photographer, is style always better to shoot over technicality? Or is that the challenge? Which do you prefer?

I’ve always liked style because it never goes away. A stylish photo from 30 years ago still stands out today whereas what was cutting-edge tech back then doesn’t have that same luxury.

I’m actually working on a book right now and I’m not going to include many sequences, so I guess that’s your answer. I’ll have a few, like the McTwist. But I find myself more interested in those photos showcasing some form of classic style. Those are the ones that stand out for me.

Mike McGill

I know you consider yourself self-taught, at least in the skate realm. Is there a particular breakthrough you remember having with regard to technique in your evolution? And can this possibly be seen in any photos?

The reason I consider myself “self-taught” is that I didn’t have a mentor in shooting skateboarding. Those earlier photographers had either left the sport, weren’t friendly or kept secrets. So I had to learn by looking at their photos in the magazines and trying to figure it out on my own.

I think about a year-and-a-half into shooting, there’s a photo of Wally Inouye at Del Mar skating the entrance of the pool that nobody rode and there’s another one of Owen Nieder doing handplant that I shot from below with a flash. Those photos are where I feel like I’m starting to compose in the frame. Like, Owen is at the top and I have a leading line coming down… it’s not that they were perfect, but they were better. I feel like once I got those photos back, I could actually see for myself that I was learning. That things were coming together.

Owen Nieder

Once I started working for Transworld, I was also getting a lot more film to play around with. That meant that I was finally able to waste film in order to learn, because that’s really how you did it back then. Now, you just shoot digi and either dump everything or fix it in Photoshop. But back then, what you saw is what you got. You could go in the darkroom and do a little burning and dodging, but nowhere near what you can do in post today.

Sometimes it wasn’t the technique evolving as much as it was the gear. Like, there was no shooting flash in the day until the FM2 came out, which also let you shoot into the sun. That was huge for me. Getting a fisheye lens, too. I could never afford one on but once Larry got a fisheye for the magazine, I could finally see what they were all about. And that’s kind of the thing with a fisheye lens, once you finally get one, you go crazy with it. All of a sudden, that’s all you’re shooting with, which quickly becomes overkill but you don’t even care. You’re just stoked to have that lens. (laughs)

Collaborating with different people, thinking of different articles to shoot, all of that stuff helps you develop as well. This stuff wasn’t just all me. I never thought of photos in terms of layouts before I worked at a magazine. You have to learn to not shoot the guy right in the center of the frame because of the gutter, which in turn helped me with composition. This is all stuff that you typically don’t think about whenever you’re first out shooting with friends. You’re just looking for some great skating but there’s actually more to it than that.


Do you think skateboarding photography has become too formulaic now? Is that why so many of these 80’s photographs are incredible, because there’s more exploration there? That because there were only so many photographers at the time, who are all still learning, they were coming up with ideas for photos that probably wouldn’t run today?

I know what you mean, but it’s probably my fault that some of those ran in the first place! I was the photo editor! (laughs)

I think you’re kinda right, to a degree. But at the same time, I’m sure there were people looking at those old Photo Annuals wondering why we put some of those photos in there.

The Swank Cover, for example. Nobody wanted that at the magazine. Dave Carson and I were the only ones, everybody else was completely against it. That cover was the only time that I ever almost quit Transworld over creative differences. We’d gotten into this giant fight with the staff where it was literally myself and the art director against everybody else.

In all fairness, it was the ‘80s and all of our covers up to that point had been a guy in the sky. Everything was super day-glo with bright clothing and sponsor stickers displayed prominently. I mean, Swank wasn’t even pro at the time. He was just my assistant and the darkroom guy back then.

But for me, that photo is more about the feeling of skateboarding than anything else. Riding your board on smooth concrete, possibly going from Point A to Point B… and the shadow. I drove by that shadow every day to get coffee for years until one day, I just got the idea to get a photo there. So Swank and I went out later that afternoon and shot a couple rolls.

Tod Swank

I had him do all kinds of stuff, yelling at him from across the street. He’s doing coffins in a couple photos. I have a few with nose wheelies in them. But he had such a good push, which I ended up liking even more as a concept, so I went with that.

But yeah, we all got into a giant fight and I almost quit. Luckily, a few days later, they reconsidered and let us use it. And while everyone today loves it, that wasn’t always the case. I definitely remember it being pretty 50-50 when it came out. Half the readers seemed to like it, everybody else absolutely hated it. I remember even Swift telling me that he didn’t get it at first. I just don’t think people understood what was going on with it.

We were intending it to be the ultimate “anti-cover”, especially for that era. And it had literally everything in the world working against it. I mean, here’s a black-and-photo of a guy not even doing a trick, just pushing. This is right in the middle of an era where every color has to be as loud as possible. Every other cover at the time had day-glow with these big splashes of color, covered in buzzwords… stuff that could really screw up a nice photo.

After a while, we started playing around with that kinda stuff, too. Because here you went to all this trouble to shoot a nice photo and people are mucking it up with a bunch of stupid words. And not even cool words! That stuff was fun to mess around with.

Gator

Is that where “Cold Boring Issue” and “Full Bleed” came from?

Yeah, that was all stuff we did as a reaction to that. GSD came up with all that. We even did “The Swimsuit Issue” once, because that was such a big deal back in the 80s. Larry actually ended up looking through the entire issue for swimsuits. He even called us into his office.

“I can’t find one swimsuit in here!”

“No, it’s right there.”

Luckily, we had a photo of Grosso on top of a cliff with his pants pulled down, showing his ass. It was really tiny, too. But that was our swimsuit.

But back to my earlier question, has modern skate photography become too preoccupied with all of these rules?

It’s hard for me to answer that because we were the guys who made up those rules. Maybe because there’s so much more content now? Or maybe that these rules are so much more “known” to people these days? But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Those rules are really just ideas to think about when shooting, but they can be broken, of course. And people do so all the time and get some amazing photos. There’s always a handful of guys out there pushing things. But you’re right, with a lot of shots, it’s still just a fisheye at the bottom of the stairs.

Christian Hosoi

How was it working with David Carson’s art direction? The crazy layouts, typographies and paints…

It’s funny because when David came on, the other guys didn’t dig him at all because he wasn’t from skateboarding. Neil, Lance and the rest of the skaters on staff all hated what he was doing. To their point, he did show up and try doing certain things that just weren’t done. But he didn’t know. He was from surfing, man. I think Transworld was his first real job as an art director, so he was just getting started. 

I always got along with him because as the photo editor, I could work with him on stuff. I could act as the voice of skateboarding without being so combative like the other guys. Pointing out that a photo was way too important to run at the size of a postage stamp or that you couldn’t put type right over the action. But it was cool working on things like that. I remember going to dinners with him and drawing layouts on napkins the whole time. It was obvious that he had an eye and ideas and he definitely went on to prove that.  

Steve Berra

You’ve persevered through every trend in skateboarding for almost 40 years now. Was there ever a photo concept thrown out by a brand or skater that was just too ridiculous?

You know, there was a lot of goofy stuff, but a lot of that stuff we ran anyway because it was so goofy.


Oh, those ads were the best. I still have the separation for that rollercoaster ad in my garage. When we ran that, I knew that I had to at least try grabbing the proof.

Stuff like that was kind of the best because they were totally missing the point. And it was always some outside company coming in to try making a quick buck. In the ‘80s, it was typically ads being done by agencies for those companies, that Jeff Jones ad was one of those… but look at them now, they’re classics! We’re still talking about them! I guarantee that if I posted that photo tomorrow, it would get double the “likes” or whatever.

But for our portrait stuff, it usually wasn’t the skaters coming up with the concepts as much as it was the photographers and writers pushing their ideas. Skaters were typically too afraid of their peers to do anything too stupid… like the photo of Tony in the goggles? That was me. All these years later, I still don’t know why I shot him wearing those things, I just thought it was cool. Just some welding goggles I bought at a garage sale for $5 bucks.

“Why am I doing this?”

“Shut up, you’re just a kid. You don’t have any rights.” (laughs)

Rodney Mullen

How many times have you found yourself in the middle of conflicts regarding tricks or spots coming out “first” in magazines?

Oh, that could definitely get pretty crazy back in the heyday of magazines.

The biggest one was probably Danny Way’s jumping out of the helicopter. That turned into a total fiasco. It was supposed to be this secret thing with a closed set and we were supposed to have the exclusive. Danny even set it up himself.

But somehow, Thrasher ended up getting photos of it. We had no idea but evidently Daniel Harold Sturt, who was shooting for Thrasher at the time, was able to get inside with a camera. He actually wore a disguise the whole time so we couldn’t recognize him and was able to get the shot.

Dave and I have looked at literally every photo taken that day and we still cannot find him. My wife now says that she saw him, but she just thought he was supposed to be there.

I always heard that he hid in a pipe.

There are a few different versions of the story but regardless, Thrasher had the photos.

I actually called Bryce to ask if there was any possible way he wouldn’t run those photos.

“No, we’re gonna use them.”

That was a big thing… but we’re still friends. (laughs)

(Editor's note: see Comments Page for Bryce's response)

The 900 was a gnarly one, too, because I got kicked out of the X-Games by a cop the day Tony did it. I was actually back at my hotel when he landed it. This is after I’d been shooting four different people try that move for literally years. I bet I’ve gone through 150 rolls of film trying to shoot the 900. And Tony makes it on TV at the one contest I got kicked out of in 20 years. (laughs)

I ended up getting the photos for Transworld from this snowboard photographer, Whitey. It was weird because he sent them over… but then, all of a sudden, he wanted them back. Next thing I know, Big Brother is running them. Not only that, but Whitey is telling people I tried to hypnotize him in order to get his photos! I had no idea I even had such powers!

Tony Hawk

(laughs) How did you supposedly try to hypnotize him?

I don’t know! But he’s claiming to people that he never wanted to give me the photos and that after my hypnosis had worn off, he was then able to get them back. But he was totally into giving me the photos at first!

The only reason it even worked out that way is because the files he originally sent were corrupted. So I was actually hitting him up for the sequence again when he'd suddenly made this decision to go with Big Brother instead. I’m sure Dave Carnie just talked him into it.

We actually still could’ve ran them. Jeff Taylor had Whitey’s sequence as well and offered to let us use it but we declined. We figured doing that would’ve probably led to some crazy battle that we didn’t necessarily want to get involved in. So yeah, it ran in Big Brother and I think Jeff used the sequence for an Adio ad.

But you always ran into stuff where you had to change things at the last minute. Another mag runs a different guy at the same spot, doing the same trick. The ABD thing has just gotten out of control. It’s all just a one-up contest. You take a photo and the very next day, something else goes down that at that exact same spot… Or so-and-so did this rail first. Stuff like that happens all the time, people get really upset over it.

Where’d the idea come from for the Miller Pole Cam shot? Had you ever used that camera before? And what did Chris think of your idea?

I got the idea from some surfing photos I’d seen. Chris had also seen those same photos so we were both pretty hyped on trying it. I honestly thought that it was my idea I'd brought to Chris but he likes to say that it was his. We actually still argue about it to this day… but I guess I’ll give it to him. (laughs)

But Chris was totally into it. Like I said, he’d seen the photos so he knew how special this could be. We actually shot a bunch of other photos that day, too. Just playing around. Shooting that same trick from below and a few more in the full pipe.  


Chris Miller

But how did you know you got the shot? Did you just shoot a ton of stuff and hope for the best?

We shot one roll of color and one roll of black-and-white. That was it. There was one good black-and-white photo, which wasn’t as good as the color photo, which was the only good color photo. He’s cropped but his front foot wasn’t out. If it would’ve been totally out, it wouldn’t have worked.

I also knew that I needed my shadow to be in there because that’s what tells the story. With the shadow in there, you don’t even need a caption. It tells you what trick he’s doing and how high he is. You wouldn’t know any of that stuff without my shadow in there.

But there was no way of knowing for sure while you were shooting. You can see that in the other photos. His head’s missing, his board’s missing. That photo is the only one that really worked. That’s the beauty of film photography. I shot a bunch of stuff that day, I took it in the next day and got it back a day or two later. But that whole time, I had no idea if I was even successful. Do I have to go back up there and try again? We had no way of knowing until the pictures came back. There was no instant replay back then.

Did you ever use the pole-cam again or possibly try any other contraptions like that over the years? 

No, I never used the pole cam again. The next time I saw a pole cam was the selfie-stick. I did the first selfie-stick in skateboarding.

No other contraptions. I have a few other shots from above like that but I was just holding my camera over my head… which is something I always tell people not to do. That Tony Hawk lien crossbone at Del Mar? I didn’t have a chair to stand on so I just raised my camera up and shot a few like that. That one came out the best.

Tony Hawk

Incredible. What about that bloody knee shot of Miller in Vancouver? And do you care to weigh in on the Indys in that photo?

I didn’t even realize that he wasn’t riding Gullwings when I shot it. It wasn’t until later that it came up because we wanted to use it for a cover. But Gullwing was a big advertiser and we didn’t want to piss them off.

If you remember, Mofo ended up shooting that exact same trick at the same spot the next day for Thrasher. They actually ran that as a cover but Chris was now bandaged up and wearing kneepads. That cover bummed me out, though. I think it’s way more punk with the blood.

I recently found my other photos from that day but they aren’t as good. You either couldn’t see how bloody his knee was or his hand wasn’t as good. And I’ll be honest, I did bring up the hand thing as we were shooting.

“Hey Chris, show me your hand better.”

Because let’s face it, you don’t typically put out your hand out like that. It’s kinda like the blood, too. Usually if you’re bleeding, you’ll clean it up a little. But I think he knew how sick it looked and decided to keep it. It worked. (laughs)

Chris Miller

In that same issue: the iconic Chin handplants.  Did you shoot all the quadruples stuff that day and figure out the best one later or did you know immediately that the handplants was the one?

Everything seemed like a big deal that day because nothing like that had ever been done before. But they were always working toward the handplants. That was the goal, so to speak.

I didn’t find this out until later, as we were recreating that photo at Woodward, but evidently the guys never knew I was shooting photos that day. They were so focused on the video because that was Stacy’s deal, I just kinda shot on my own. And because of Stacy’s filming, I never really had to set up any shots. I could just shoot long lens from the other side of the ramp. But yeah, they didn’t even know that I was shooting until the four handplants came out.

Why didn’t Stacy ever film that from your angle? Because I always felt that side angle was a bit of a letdown in the video.

I just kept it to myself. That video was Stacy’s thing and I’m not about to tell him what to do. He was the man… and Stecyk being there, too? He was like Superman! I’m just gonna stay quiet.

Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Tony Hawk

Fair enough. But launch ramps aside, how difficult was it shooting low, rockety street skating after years of Christ Airs and McTwists?

I don’t think people realize that as skateboarding was reinventing itself, it also changed how we photographed it. People like Mofo, Ortiz, Bryce and I, it was basically up to us to figure how to shoot that stuff.

All of the parks were getting bulldozed and suddenly, you’re out shooting Lucero skate a curb in Whittier. How do you make that look as dynamic as Miller’s pole cam? Guys aren’t 8-feet in the air anymore.

Luckily when Natas, Tommy and Gonz started taking things to rails, skating architecture, we had more to work with. We were able to fine tune it a little and figure out how to make it all look its best for the magazine.

There are tricks to it, you just have to figure them out. With a fisheye lens, you can always make stuff look bigger. Laying down under a ledge. It was a lot like shooting freestyle again… you had to make that stuff work because our advertisers all sold all that stuff. Slalom, not so much.

I remember you shooting underneath Rodney a few times.

It’s not that I had to do that, I just wanted to present this stuff in the best way possible.

Natas Kaupas

But at the same time, you shot both Gonz and Natas Pro Spotlights. Could you tell there was something more going on with those two, in particular?

It was pretty obvious that not only were they inventing this whole new thing, they were also taking it to a level that had never been seen before. It was just so different. I mean, in the context of everything else that was going on at the time, these guys were kinda out there, man. Natas skated kinda weird in comparison to everybody else. And with the way Gonz’s brain works, not only with the tricks but with his ideas and artwork? The paint pens on the griptape? There was nothing like it.

I knew that I had to meet up with these guys because everyone was talking about them. They were doing their own thing entirely and I wanted to highlight that for their interviews. Gonz doing that kickflip on a bank with all that stuff on his griptape? It was amazing.

Mark Gonzales

The first time I shot photos of Natas was super early on. We went to this rough-ass bank in Santa Monica that he’d grown up skating and shot some pretty basic tricks of his… but he had such a great style. It was already there.

And I still remember meeting Gonz for the first time at a contest in San Diego. He had cornrows in his hair and was doing all of these handplants and boneless on a curb.

“Wow, this guy is freaky.”

But once they started jumping on handrails, it became a whole new thing. Everyone wanted to see handrails after that.

The hip stuff of Natas at Venice was undeniable. I feel like that was where the streets went beyond ramps and started getting into stuff that wasn’t made for riding but being ridden anyway. So much of skating now goes back to that time. They were obviously setting up a foundation for how skateboarding would be in the future, even though that was probably the furthest thing from their minds back then. They didn’t even know there would be a future in skateboarding because at the time, there really wasn’t much of one. It was never supposed to last this long.


Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzales

Those guys in the crazy vintage clothes, Natas told me they were both hurt but didn’t want to cancel the shoot. Do you remember that?

I’ve never heard that but could’ve been. That stuff was Garry Davis’ idea because it was a Street Sheet. He wanted to do a thrift store article with those guys, so they all went over there and came back looking like that. That was a lot of fun, though. Shooting portraits with those guys skating around in those clothes. Gonz skating mongo for the camera in his white shoes.

Claus Grabke was there, too. He actually shot some photos of me shooting them that I just saw in the last year or so, which was really cool.

But if you’re getting grief about the Swank pushing shot, how did photos of Gonz and Natas doing kickturns in bell-bottoms go?

Well, I was still the photo editor, so I knew that stuff was going to run. If I had just been a photographer, I doubt I would’ve been able to do half of the stuff I did back then. But shooting photos of those two doing literally anything was acceptable, so it was actually the complete opposite reaction.

“How sick is this! These guys look like goofs!”

We were just having fun and I think that shows.

Steve Rocco

That shot of Rocco pushing through that No Skateboarding sign towards the cop. Is that real?

Well, if Dan Sturt had shot that, it probably would’ve been staged. But no, that cop just happened to walk by at the perfect time. I think I have three or four shots of that, with the cop getting further and further away. That was the best one, though, with Rocco being in the right place and the wheel marks on the wall… those are probably bike marks but it still works.

I actually had a bunch of photoshop work done on that shot recently algae had grown on the negative. I’d gone to scan it and there were these crazy splotches all over it. I had to have someone come in and work on it. Luckily, they were able to get it.

Did that cop react at all to Rocco?

Nope, he didn’t even flinch. He didn’t care at all.

Steve Rocco

I’d kill for that “The Search For Gonz” shirt he wore in that piece.

(laughs) Yeah, that was pretty awesome. I have no idea what that was all about. He was wearing it at some contest and I thought it looked cool. I’m actually looking for the negative of that because I want to print it bigger.

I shot that right around the same time as Gonz wearing that “Technician” shirt, standing with Tony. That’s another good one and I don’t know who made that shirt either. That was at a Toronto Contest and he had it on. They ran into each other and I think Tony kinda got a kick out of it. Again, I just happened to be there and shot the photo.

Even back then, those felt like unique situations but they’ve obviously become more interesting over the years as we look back, knowing how things played out.

Mark Gonzales and Tony Hawk

How was working at Transworld during that time when Rocco waged war through his ads? I know his "Dear George" Powell attack originally ran in Transworld, how did that play out at the magazine? And what’s was your memory of the "Dear Larry" saga? Do you remember Larry declining that “suicide” 101 ad?

Powell was not too happy about that at all, but Larry was the one who had to deal with it. Honestly, the Big 5 were no match for Rocco. He was playing by his own rules back then. He was doing things in a way that would go on to change not only the skateboarding industry, but also the magazine business as well. Those other guys just weren’t ready for his way of doing things.

I don’t remember that 101 ad but I do recall the shot of Blockhead Dave Bergthold holding a fist full of dollars that started the shit storm. I feel like that’s the one that really led to the start of Big Brother.

Oh yeah, where Blockhead mocked that “Out with the Old” ad. 

Yeah, but all that stuff was fun to watch. And I will say that after Big Brother started, Transworld got a little more fun to do as a reaction to it. Ted Newsome became our Art Director and we started doing different covers and magazine logos every month.

Jaya Bonderov

But how was your experience during the militant rise of street skating in the early 90s? So much of that era seems in direct opposition to everything you had largely made a career out of prior.

It was just so closed-minded. To me, skateboarding has always been about freedom and all of the characters it would attract. Every pro had their little quirks and I loved that about skating. But the 90’s had so many rules. We seemed to lose that for a while.   

As a photographer, the early 90s were difficult because tricks had gotten so technical but hardly anybody could do them consistently. So you’d find yourself out shooting all day with nothing to show for it. I actually started staying in San Diego more around this time because it got harder to justify going to LA if I wasn’t going to get anything. I’d shoot 20 rolls of film and either they never made it or we got kicked out.

“One more try!”

I’m admittedly pretty lazy, but as soon as someone would say the word “sequence”, I could just feel my heart drop. And it’s not like you’re at a park or someone’s ramp anymore. You’re now out shooting on weekends, because that’s when businesses are closed. I still remember coming home from shooting all day on a Saturday. My wife would ask, “What all did you get today?”

“Nothing. I now have 50 rolls of nothing.”

But videograbs are just so indicative of the era. We couldn’t keep on wasting all that film so we had to switch. I remember when we first started doing them, I’d take photos of the tv. I’d literally sit in a room with the lights off and shoot the screen, going frame-by-frame.

Brian Lotti

Insane. But didn’t you also shoot the photos for the Brian Lotti Pro Flashlight piece around this time? With the yellow outfit and bananas? 

Yeah, I shot a lot of that, right before he disappeared. I had no idea at the time that I was shooting some of his last stuff. Easily one of the best skateboarders of that era who just left it all to live in a Buddhist Monastery in Hawaii.

I still remember shooting that banana stuff. I actually had that board until a few years ago. He'd painted a banana on this super tiny board, which I guess gave him the idea to skate in the yellow outfit. All that stuff was his ideas.

The best was shooting that portrait of him spray-painting the wall, dressed all goofy. Brian wanted to use real spray paint for it and I remember telling him not to, just in case. So what he’s actually using there is oven cleaner.

Well, that wall we shot at in San Diego used to be covered in graffiti but had recently been painted over. We’re out there shooting the photo when this cop comes to a screeching halt, right in the middle of traffic. He pulls over, jumps out of the car and just starts screaming at us. 

“What the fuck are you doing!?!”

He grabs the can out of Brian’s hands.

“What the hell is this?”

He sprays it on the wall and nothing happens. It just foams up. He’s immediately deflated.  

 “Nevermind.”

He quietly gets back in his car and leaves. It was hilarious.

Brian Lotti

What responsibility do you feel at gnarlier spots where you might be the only other person there? The Leap of Faith being a prime example.

I learned CPR at Del Mar… just kidding. (laughs)

The Leap of Faith was definitely a case where I remember thinking about whether we should have a paramedic present. Because at the time, that was the biggest gap that anybody had ever tried. But what’s funny is that all these years later and all its notoriety, it’s really just a bail shot. You can see in the sequence, he goes right through his board, straight to the bottom and hurts his ankle. And that was that was the only time he ever tried it.

I’ve had to take people to the hospital before but that’s just part of it. I remember taking Markovich in because he slammed his hand in my car door! He wasn’t even skating! But yeah, you feel a little guilty when you see dudes getting knocked out but they know what they’re getting into.


Jamie Thomas

What’s your philosophy on printing bails? I know TWS was guilty of a few rumored bail covers during your tenure.

Like what?

I always heard the Penny front blunt was a bail.

That wasn’t me, though. That was Swift. Sorry, Dave. (laughs)

My philosophy is that they can always bail in the shot we run, just as long as they made the trick eventually. The shot you are seeing might not be the actual make, but it’s probably from the same session. The make isn’t always the best photo. Maybe you had better timing on another one or his face shows up better... Those are my rules anyway.

There are some amazing bail shots, though, and I’m not against running one if it’s obvious enough. Like the Leap of Faith, even though that was an ad, we presented the entire sequence and you knew he didn’t make it.

There was also that practice of piecing together sequences back then, too.

Tom Penny

Like that Guy cover.

Right, but it’s the same principle. If the landing is good on the one but the beginning of the sequence is off, it’s okay the substitute those frames… as long as it’s shot at roughly the same angle and there aren’t people moving around in the background. That was the problem with that Guy cover. It’s just that sequences were so damn important back then. Now video takes care of all that.

But if somebody tries a trick 90 times and finally makes it, is it really so important that you substituted a few frames in the beginning? I don’t think so.

What’s the most film you ever shot for a sequence?

I had a 20-roll limit. It was $8 bucks a roll back then for color film, with 3 sequences per roll… So I guess you had 60 tries to make it.

Vinny Ponte

So digital must’ve been amazing for you.

I was the second skate photographer to start using digital. I remember borrowing one from the Snowboard Mag to shoot a Vans Triple Crown event in Oceanside. I ended up shooting sequences the entire weekend. By Monday morning, I was sold. I walked right into Swift’s office, like, “Dave, this is it. This is the godsend.”

We got ourselves a digital camera shortly thereafter, the Canon 1D. We didn’t know a thing about digital but I didn’t care. Sequences, the bane of my existence for so long, had now become so much easier.

We were still shooting Hasselblads for stills, but people gave us so much flack about going digital. That it wasn’t as good as film. Well, it wasn’t. It was only 4 megapixels. But for sequences, it was great!

This was during the film vs digital debate that was raging back then. But by the time it’s in the magazine, it’s entirely digital anyway. So who cares? It’s funny because I was the old dude advocating the switch while these younger dudes were fighting me every step of the way. I understood their points, but as a photo editor, digital saved me so much time and money. Being able to get stuff instantly, not having to send out for scans. I loved it.

What’s funny is that once those naysayers finally switched over, they’d tweak their photos so much that their shots no longer looked like film anyway. So what’s your point?

Jamie Thomas

But do you feel digital technology and Instagram is pushing photography forward or has it possibly cheapened the discipline?

It’s probably a bit of both, largely depending on the shooter. But it’s definitely harder for someone to stand out now, that’s for sure.

I started out at a good time because there were hardly any other photographers and there were only two magazines. That was it. People had to wait for the new issue and when it finally came out, it was a big deal.

Now, you’re just forever scrolling. That’s it. I’ll post things on Instagram with a big long caption where I explain everything about the photos and I’ll still have people asking questions in the comments.

“Where was this shot? Who is this guy?”

People don’t even read what little bit there is to read on there. Back in the day, you read every single word. But it was slow. I’d see a photographer shoot something at Del Mar and it wouldn’t be in Skateboarder Magazine until months later.

It’s become disposable. Everyone needs content and nobody remembers it. I see photos posted on Instagram almost every single day that would’ve been covers back then. But now they’re relegated to a couple hours of glory and that’s it. On to the next.

So are you completely out of what’s now The Berrics Magazine?

Yeah, I haven’t worked there for about a year. I got laid off last November.

I can’t really get into too much of it. We sold The Skateboard Mag to the Berrics a while back but were still going up to LA once a week to work on things. That’s where it was at when I left. I know they’d been working on a Berrics Magazine for a while now and recently deleted The Skateboard Mag social media handles. That’s really all I know. I’ve been hunkered down here in Encinitas, hanging out with the dog and drinking beer. Working on my own projects.


Care to divulge any details on these projects? Stoked to hear you’re working on a book, long overdue.

I’ve just always been so busy with the magazine or other stuff. All of my photos are at my house but if you saw my garage, you’d quickly realize why it’s taken so long. I’ve actually been working on this thing, in some fashion, for over 10 years now. But I’ve made it a point to start saying no to all other outside projects so I can finally get this done. Hopefully in the next year.

Right now, I’m going through literally all of my photos and I probably have about ¾ of everything I need. But one problem I keep running into is finding photos that I’d completely forgotten about. Outtakes that were probably better than what originally ran. Like, why didn’t I run this?  

Why didn’t you?

A lot of those decisions were dictated by how their sponsors’ logos showed up. That’s just how it is. You always have to please the advertisers.

But yeah, I’m working on it right now. For the first time, I even have a little schematic going. There are still some missing photos and some other photos that need scanned but I’m working on it. I just want to get it right.

Steve Claar

Can’t wait to see it, Grant. And thanks so much for taking the time to do this. As we wrap this up, I have two more quick ones for you. First, who do you consider to be the most underrated pro you ever shot?

There are a lot of those but I don’t think people realized how good Steve Claar was at the time. He was amazing. I’ve been looking through a lot of his photos lately and he was as good as anybody. Great style, too. Mike Youseffpour is probably another one.

But some people chose to get out of it. Billy Ruff is a perfect example of one the world’s best skateboarders who just quit. He was born with a gift, man. Incredible. And he just walked away from it one day. Not nearly enough people talk about that guy.

Last question: what’s a classic skate photo you wish you took?

A bunch of Sturt’s stuff. Probably either Matt Hensley on the sombrero or the one of him ollieing under the bridge in San Diego. Those two photos are amazing. 

Somebody once asked me to shoot something under that same bridge later on and I had to decline. It just didn’t feel right, I have too much respect for those guys. There’s some things you just don’t do.

15 comments:

Pig Dog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pig Dog said...

This is fantastic. It's 1:20am and I'm supposed to be working very late, but could not resist reading the entire interview. So many of those incredible photos we drooled over, and held up at different angles trying to gauge how the skater was doing such incredible moves - Grant's visual was as important as the trick itself. The pool tiles, palm trees and blue skies of Del Mar and Grant's photos was so exotic to a skateboarder from the grey-skied streets of England!

Thanks - Pig Dog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you both, Grant and Eric.
Amazing work.

jed walters on 101 said...

I'm glad J.G.B. mentioned Sturt's photos in the end of the interview. They both seemed to be riding on a different path in the early nineties. Brittain's and Sturt's stuff was the visual content of my skateboarding dreams, incinerated while drooling over these smelly magazine pages. Also further kudos for shouting out Steve Claar - as he's been one of the most stylish and powerful skateboardes to ever do it, proven in the few (as in not enough) photos that ran on those sacred pages for shared worshipping . Once again a great article!

Greetings from Germany,
DvB

Bryce Kanights said...

I really enjoyed reading through this interview with all of the stories and relative photographs from Grant’s deep archive. Amazing times shared; thanks to you both for making this happen!

However, I do have one factual correction to share with you guys. I left Thrasher magazine in the spring of 1996 and I was not involved regarding Dan Sturt’s cleverly poached photos of Danny Way’s 1997 helicopter drop which ended up in Thrasher. Grant must have reached out to Luke Ogden at the time.

I know that I would’ve had a very difficult time to diminish Grant and Swift’s efforts in this regard. That’s some gossip tabloid bullshit and my longstanding friendships are way more valuable than that. Cheers Grant and Chops! - BK

ManyDaves said...

Sitting in a Ralph's parking lot reading this thing. Couldn't wait! So many of these photos/pages ripped from TWS mags lined my walls as a kid. Still have some of them (Miller with the Blood and Indys!)..! Rad one Eric. Thanks for running my photos in a Brain Floss Grant!

Le putain de chat noir said...

thank you for that, it's amazing. I wish it could be printed in a mag.

sanisidro said...

great job,as usual!
coffee table book,now...come'on!

Dan Moynihan said...

Very interesting interview! That TWS with the diagonal shadow was the first skate mag that I bought. At age 13, that image really spoke to me (and still does today). It jumped off the newsstand and fired my imagination. Brilliant work.

Keith said...

That Miller bleeding hand and knee photo is 1000 times more interesting that the thrasher padded up cover!

So many cool stories.

The wait for developing film to see whether you got the shot or not must have been agonizing.

Good job Eric!

Loo Ganida said...

Thank you grant and Chops!! Amazing interview!!

Dan Mason said...

I'd like to echo Pig Dog's words above, as I'm also from beneath the grey skies of England. Grant's pics, especially the colourful, exotic vert stuff are my all time favourite skate images. I've got a massive framed poster print of the Swank Push photo up in my house. Iconic.

Great interview, thanks.

Anonymous said...

the character and industry folks inside skateboarding are the best reads. as always, amazing interview
cheers

Anonymous said...

seriously, if you ever make a beautiful book like the big bro shit, this could be my new bible.
thanks so much for your work, and gb to do this.

Sam B said...

So good! Thanks for all the memories.