The Story Behind The Push (and How It Almost Didn’t Become One of the Most Classic Skateboarding Magazine Covers)
In late 1986, I would drive east on Via de la Valle in Del Mar, California, and pass beneath the overpass of the I-5 freeway on my way to get coffee at The Pannikin. As a photographer, I was always on the lookout for a good photo or background, and I had long admired the shaft of light which shone through the gap in the bridge above, a gap which was between the north and southbound lanes and bisected the ferroconcrete wall below with contrasting shadow and light.
I am often asked, “Do you see in black and white?” The answer is “Hell yes, a lot.” There are certain scenes that scream black and white, and this simple geometric shape cast by the sun onto the massive backdrop was projecting strongly onto my photo brain. I started to previsualize a photograph of a skateboarder passing in front of the textured wall, and I began to calculate what time of day to shoot it. Over the next few days, I would see the angle of light change daily as the earth revolved. I finally figured that early afternoon would be the best time to capture the shadow’s diagonal shape in my Nikon’s viewfinder.
At this time, I was the photo editor and senior photographer at Transworld Skateboarding Magazine (1983-2003), and Tod Swank, who was a great skater and skate photographer, was my darkroom tech. I enlisted Tod as my photo stunt dummy, and we met up at The Pannikin. We walked over to the shoot location and sussed out the light situation—it looked pretty good. Once I took up position on the opposite side of the four-lane road, I directed him by shouting commands and waving my arms wildly. There was quite a bit of traffic, and we had to wait for a break in the cars going by. Tod pushed back and forth on his board, doing a variety of maneuvers, some pretty comical, including one in a Superman stance (see attached photo). I ran two rolls of Kodak Tri-X 36-exposure film through my camera and felt like we had something usable. We’d captured what I’d envisioned.
Let me point out that this was not shot specifically for the cover—that idea came after we developed the film in the darkroom—I just wanted to have a photo for the mag. Tod developed the film and gave it to me with a contact sheet, and I placed it on my light table and squinted through my magnifying loupe. One image stood out—the frame with Tod simply pushing along the sidewalk. It was so basic—it was the foundation of skateboarding, it was the first thing we all learn to do after stepping on a board, it was the essence of this activity we, who do it, love. We all have this in common: we push.
I showed the chosen frame to David Carson, who was the art director (later to go on to become a design guru), and he was stoked on it. He suggested it for the cover of TWS, and I thought this was a great idea. David also thought that the cover should be designed without any Day-Glo cover blurbs, which were common on New Wave-style 80s covers, and that would muck up the clean design and crowd the pushing skater out of the frame. This would be the perfect cover to go with Garry Scott Davis’s article “Soul Power,” which was scheduled for the June 1987 issue. This photo seemed to us as the Everyman/Everywoman skate photo: everyone could relate to it, and it said soul power bigtime! That’s what we thought, but what you think isn’t always what others will think. We presented the design at an editorial production meeting, and the rest of the staff hated it. It broke all of the magazine distribution and skateboarding world rules—it had no Day-Glo cover blurbs, it was shot in black and white, and it showed a non-pro skater. It wasn’t a guy-in-the-sky peak action shot of a skater on a logoed-out skate deck. I was a bit surprised by the response of the other staff members, and the meeting was getting more and more heated. After the meeting ended I retreated to Carson’s office and tried to come down from it. I pretty much thought our Push cover was a dead design idea after that argument, and I was pissed!
I stayed away for a couple of days to cool off. Eventually, I went back to the office, and the June 1987 issue came out miraculously, with the Carson-designed Tod Swank cover, photo by me. The photo caption on the contents page read, “It doesn’t matter who, where or what. It’s just a skateboarder… skateboarding. Photo: Brittain”. That was what it was all about! It didn’t matter that it didn’t have Swank’s name, that was the point, it was any skater! (For the record, Tod didn’t mind not having his name on the photo.)
You would think that the commotion would all end there, all hunky-dory, right? Not quite. Just as many of our Skate readers hated it as liked it. Friends told me later that they hated or didn’t get it and wondered what the hell we were thinking. I tried to explain it to those people, the every-skater photo thing, the feeling of freedom through the simple act of pushing down the street, you know… that thing we all do, but it was a hard sell.
The mag took some heat for a long while, but I started to notice skateboard mag covers changing over time. I think the Push cover opened up some thoughts on what could go on a skate mag cover and made it clearer that you didn’t have to stick to newsstand consultants’ rules. After all, we’re skaters; we don’t need no stinkin’ rules! People warmed up to that Push cover after twenty or so years. I even heard the old haters say that it was one of their favorite covers and even one of their favorite skate photos. It’s that old saying, “Time will tell”—well it did in this case.
Now, In 2019, I regale young skaters with the story of the Push Cover almost not being a cover and the reasons, and they are amazed, because as a cover it would be so tame by today’s standards. I am proud of that.
If you want to see where we shot it, it’s under the I-5 freeway and Via de la Valle Ave in Del Mar.