Chronicle

Vol. 1 Issue 1

John Witzig

A GOLDEN AGE: SURFING'S REVOLUTIONARY 60s and 70s

Interview by Michael Carter Photographs by John Witzig

  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig
  • John Witzig

Where do you currently reside? 

I live on the North Coast of New South Wales, about eight hours drive north of Sydney. My house is about half an hour inland from the point break at Angourie, where I surfed a lot in my 20s. I built a little house just down the road from the point in 1972 – well, I started it that year. It was never finished I suppose. It’s still there!

When did you realize you wanted to take photos of your friends surfing? 

I’d been magazine and picture-obsessed from my teenage years at least, maybe earlier. Surfing in Sydney where I grew up was a small world at the start of the 1960s, so I knew several surf photographers and also Bob Evans who started Surfing World magazine in 1962. None of it was particularly mysterious to me. It also didn’t look that hard. Surfing knowledge was a prerequisite, then having a cheap 35mm SLR camera and a telephoto lens. It wasn’t that hard. I was always interested in words and pictures, and Surfing World published a story of mine in 1963. The standards were abysmal; so that was hardly a great achievement.

Did you have anyone showing you the ropes of surf photography? A mentor?

I think that I borrowed a camera and lens from Ron Perrott around 1962 and shot a few pictures of Nat at Collaroy. They weren’t particularly good, but good enough to prompt me to continue. Ron was a friend of mine and one of the best of the Australian photographers. I’m not sure that he was a ‘mentor’ as such, but he offered encouragement. There wasn’t a lot to learn; when you used Plus X film, the exposure on a sunny day was f /11 at 500th of a second. None of us had light meters.

I first shared what could’ve been a Practica and a 400mm Tamron lens with a friend, but that came to a sticky end when he opened the back of what he thought was an empty camera. I’m not sure what equipment I first bought for myself, but I think that the lens was a second hand 400mm Novaflex. I lusted after a longer lens. I was shamefully envious of Albe Falzon who had a 500mm. His lens also seemed to be sharper than mine, or maybe he was just better at focusing.

Who were your favorite people to shoot surfing? 

Good surfers obviously, but when they were people I knew, it definitely helped. Anticipation was important, so the better you knew the surfing of the person you were photographing, the better the pictures were.

I had the good fortune to be friends (or at least acquaintances) with some of the best Australian surfers during that period. In 1966, Bob Evans let me edit and design what came to be known as the ‘New Era’ issue of Surfing World. Understandably, I filled it with my own pictures and stuff I’d written. Midget Farrelly is still offended by what I wrote in one story. That’s a serious grudge – we’re approaching the 50-year anniversary!

What was your perception of Australian surfing vs. American surfing in the ‘60s and ‘70s?

We’d been obsessed (and overly awed) by anything that came out of California for too long, so by the mid-1960s, it began to dawn on us that things were happening in Australia that didn’t seem to be noticed in the U.S. When my friend, Nat Young, won the World Championships at San Diego in 1966, the major U.S. magazines simply ignored the fact that something had happened. Something was happening, and where it was happening was Australia. Ironically, one of the inspirations for this change (that would become the shortboard revolution) was an expat Californian, George Greenough. The U.S. surf photographer Leroy Grannis left an amusing footnote in surfing history when he proclaimed, “What can you learn from a mat rider?” The fact is that George can still surf a mat better than most people can ride a stand-up surfboard.

So, around this time we (well, actually it was me) got loud and offended the entire surfing community of California by telling them that they were shit and Australia was leading the surfing world. I did this in a story that John Severson at Surfer titled ‘We’re Tops Now’ and it wasn’t taken well. I wasn’t content with just upsetting my own countrymen. I was aiming at the largest target around. Somewhat surprisingly, history has been fairly kind to the views I expressed (rather crudely) at that time.

Are you still connected to the surf industry? What’s your perception of it?

I have no connection at all to the surfing industry these days, other than offering occasional barbed comments about it. But I also know some of the individuals who started the major surf companies in Australia, and the business could sure be in worse hands.

I do resent the appropriation of symbolic terms like ‘The Search’ by the industry. I think that Bill Cleary first made that term significant in Surf Guide magazine in 1964. I tried to explain to someone recently the difference between what it meant in the 1970s and these days. In 1976, a friend of mine and I were staying in a town called Ericeira, in Portugal. I’d seen pictures of a point break north of the town, and since we didn’t have a car, we simply set out carrying our boards, and walked north. It took a later visit when there was swell to be sure that we had found it.

Nowdays, to participate in ‘The Search’ you go on board a multi-million dollar boat that cruises the Indonesian Islands, and it’s documented for corporate videos. It’s a bit hard not to think that we’ve lost something along the way.

Are there any younger contemporary surf photographers whose work you’ve noticed?

ALL of them! Well, a lot of them. Especially the water photographers. They haven’t just broken new ground in ‘surf’ photography, they’ve done that with photography. I don’t ‘get’ pictures of aerials in surfing, but then I don’t get aerials. How often do you see a wave in the picture? Rhetorical question – rarely. I mean, aerials are great gymnastics, I just don’t see what they (mostly) have to do with surfing. It doesn’t matter, just ignore me.

Are you still shooting photos? 

I continue to document life around me, but I’m pretty sedentary these days, so my subject matter is somewhat limited. When I was traveling more (mainly in Asia), I took lots of pictures. I still love photographs. I’m obsessed by photographs, but that wasn’t what you asked.

How did your book with Rizzoli come about? 

My friend Drew Kampion who was the editor of Surfer in the mid-’60s, put me in contact with Richard Olsen a while back. Richard was doing a contemporary book on handmade houses, and I did a bit of research for him on Australian examples of the species. He’d worked for Rizzoli and asked me if I’d like him to propose a book of my pictures to them. I wasn’t unaware of Rizzoli’s glowing reputation in publishing. The whole process took forever. Actually, it took longer than that, but it happened! I was extraordinarily fortunate to have an editor, Kathleen Jayes, whose husband surfs, so Kathleen knows the subject, and then a designer, Jim Newitt, who’s a surfer too. People who don’t understand surfing can sure fuck up surfing pictures, and that absolutely didn’t happen at Rizzoli. I was in very good hands.

What’s the most important thing in life for you? 

I have no ‘most important thing’. I have lots of them: trying to stay healthy, being interested in what I’m doing, what’s happening tomorrow, reading, walking on the beach and having a swim, communicating with family and friends, my home, the state of the world right now (a bit depressing), and eating and drinking (wine). Those aren’t in any order at all, and if I thought about it there’d be a whole heap more. That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head shortlist.

What’s your favorite camera? 

I’ve had Nikon cameras since around 1972, and I like the digital one that I have, but there’s a body that works especially well in low light, so I’ve found something new to lust after. I only have one lens – maybe a 20–200 mm zoom? (See how much attention I pay to things) but, for me the advantages of traveling light outweigh other considerations – and being able to grab a camera and take a picture instantly. I carried around two bodies and about five lenses for far too many years.

What would you like to say to the younger generation of surfers and surf photographers?

Don’t forget the adventure and the romance.

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