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J. Grant Brittain Exhibits 1980s Skateboarding Photography

Photo of Jeff Phillips by J. Grant Brittain

As one of the most widely recognized skateboarding photographers on the planet, San Diego’s J. Grant Brittain has documented the evolution of skateboarding over the last four decades, as well as the rise of legends such as Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill and many others. His iconic images not only captured the visual spectacle and radical expression of a subculture, but played a critical role in bringing skateboarding into the wider public consciousness during a pre-digital age. Currently on view at ACE/FRANCISCO Gallery and ATHICA@Ciné Gallery, the dual exhibition “‘80s Skate Photography by J. Grant Brittain” offers a window into an exciting, formative time. 

A resident of Encinitas, CA since 1974, Brittain landed a job at the newly opened Del Mar Skate Ranch in 1978. Fully immersed within the local skateboarding scene, he shot his first roll of film using his housemate’s camera just six months later, setting a lifelong passion into motion. 

“While I was working in the pro shop selling Cokes and Twinkies, I had an unreal pool of locals, friends and pro skaters to practice my photographic skills on, and I would sneak out during my shifts and shoot the visiting pros,” says Brittain.

Courtesy of J. Grant Brittain J. Grant Brittain in 1974

A few years later in 1983, Larry Balma, the owner of Tracker Trucks, asked Brittain if he would be interested in submitting a few photos for a “newsletter” he was putting together. That newsletter turned out to be the first 44-page issue of Transworld Skateboarding magazine. Before long, Brittain cemented himself as an integral part of the publication’s team, working as a photo editor and senior photographer for the next 20 years. During that time, his captivating photographs graced the covers of over 60 issues, reaching a global audience. Eventually, he moved on with friends to launch The Skateboard Mag, where he continued to churn out images until 2016. 

The photographs exhibited at ACE/FRANCISCO and Ciné were selected from PUSH: J. Grant Brittain—‘80s Skateboarding Photography, a book recently published in 2021 that essentially serves as a time capsule of the era. Initially interested in creating a 40-year retrospective of his work, Brittain narrowed the focus down to the first decade of his career, partly out of necessity due to the sheer volume of his archive, but also to provide a thorough look into such an important period within skateboarding’s history. 

“I personally consider the 1980s to be the golden age of skateboarding,” says Brittain. “I think that skateboarding went from the Hula Hoop toy stage to a real sport and lifestyle stage. Tricks progressed, product technology progressed, and the art, music and fashion made skateboarding stand out from the rest of mainstream society. I shot that whole era and saw the demise of skateparks and the advent of street skating with the pioneers— Mark Gonzales, Natas Kaupus, Tommy Guerrero—and the freestyle technician Rodney Mullen. I think that me honing my photo skills during that time also gives me a special affection for that era. I took some of my personal favorites then, and we also built Transworld into a powerhouse of a magazine.”

A skateboarder himself who began at the young age of 10 after receiving a board for Christmas, Brittain uses his first-hand knowledge to anticipate the movements of his subjects. Full of suspense, his images often freeze the split second in time when skateboarders seemingly defy gravity as they levitate in the air. Beyond pure athleticism, this particular set of images embodies the bold, saturated palette of the ‘80s through funky fashion, cool cars and a carefree, do-it-yourself attitude. 

J. Grant Brittain Portrait of Natas Kaupas

“Shooting skateboarding is different from other kinds of photography; you pretty much have to have been or be a skater to know the tricks, angles and timing,” says Brittain. “Plus, you’re right in the middle of the action with a fisheye lens, and right in the impact zone. Football photographers aren’t running around on the field during the game—we are.”

Brittain’s iconic images have inspired generations of young people to pick up a skateboard or a camera, including ACE/FRANCISCO Gallery owner and professional photographer Jason Thrasher, who curated both exhibitions. Thrasher, who had a poster of one of Brittain’s photographs on his bedroom wall in high school, first met Brittain when he showed up with a crew at Thrasher’s hometown skate park in Huntsville, AL in 1988. A portrait of Thrasher from that day, which is included in the exhibition, was then published in Transworld. This pivotal experience inspired Thrasher to pursue photography, and everything now comes full circle as Thrasher hosts Brittain at his gallery in Athens. 

Mike Blabac J. Grant Brittain

“I feel quite grateful that I was in the right place at the right time and worked at the skatepark, which led to the magazine, and I didn’t do it for the money, there was none,” says Brittain. “I was lucky enough to find something I loved and was able to develop a bit of a talent doing. I am stoked when a 50 year old skater tells me they had my photos on their bedroom walls or that because of those photos they became a photographer.”

ACE/FRANCISCO will host an opening reception with Brittain in attendance on Thursday, Sept. 28 from 6-9 p.m. Ciné will then host an artist’s talk and book signing for PUSH two nights later on Saturday, Sept. 30 from 6–8 p.m. Avid Bookshop will provide copies fo the book for sale that evening. Brittain’s photographs will hang at Ciné through Oct. 25, while those at ACE/FRANCISCO will remain on view through the end of the year. Visit to explore more of the artist’s archive.