New York, NY (Twenty-year retrospective, 1979)
The lobby of the Museum of Modern Art filled to capacity last Friday night during the reception for a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of photographer J. Grant Brittain. Artists, critics, and the social elite made themselves noticed at the standing-room-only spectacle. The only elusive individual, in fact, was the artist himself, who was later found finger-painting with his son beneath the huge canvas of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950).
Brittain’s photography is a rare combination of technical mastery and creative abandon. His gritty black-and-white pictures of Southern California skateboarders are reminiscent of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s grainy street photography of the 1930s and 40s, the stark tones infusing the two-dimensional images with the vitality his subjects seem to embody. Gazing at one of Brittain’s images, photographer Ralph Gibson interrupted his study just long enough to utter his admiration for the West Coast master: “There is a great energy in his Brittain’s work that I haven’t seen anywhere, not even in my own stuff.”
The work on display spans the artist’s two decades of both black-and-white and color skateboard photography. The huge Cibachrome prints were the most popular of the night, with crowds pushing forward to gaze at the bold and colorful images of skateboarders defacing public property or just defying the laws of nature. They are unnatural pictures of unnatural feats, and they were made by an artist of unnatural talent.
“It is a remarkable individual who will lie in the gutter just to give a photograph an authentic perspective,” said renowned commercial photographer Richard Avedon. “This certainly couldn’t be done in the studio, or even through the magic of computer imagery. This is the real thing.”
“I don’t really put any of my work above anyone else’s,” said Brittain of the exhibit photographs, pausing from his current work in progress¿a purple-and-orange portrait of son Sage he was painting with his index finger. “And I don’t think of what I do now as better than what I’ve done in the past.”
Brittain’s past includes six years as manager of the infamous Del Mar Skate Ranch, where, in 1979, he learned to handle a camera and began by shooting locals like the young Tony Hawk. He is also TransWorld SKATEboarding’s founding photo editor, a position he created in 1983 and holds to this day. Under his guidance, TWS has become renowned for its photography, and is staffed by the world’s finest skateboard photographers. “I always want TransWorld to exhibit the best quality photography in skateboarding, but still remain experimental so it’s not the same old thing,” said Brittain. “I get energized by the guys I work with. We’re like the TransWorld photo think tank.”
The MoMA exhibit has yet to materialize, really, but the photographs of J. Grant Brittain will prove to be an indispensable body of work, chronicling the evolution of this sector of America’s youth culture, and the evolution of the art of photography in the late Twentieth Century. The following pages offer a glimpse of Brittain’s two decades in the field, including his fifteen-year (so far) adventure as photo editor for TransWorld SKATEboarding. Prepare for a feast for the eyes; the best is yet to come.