Julien and I recently each acquired a copy of A Golden Age: Surfing's Revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. This book documents the dramatic change that swept through surf culture in the 1960s and 1970s, generally known as the shortboard revolution. Growing up, photographing and surfing with a group of young Australian surfers including Bob McTavish, George Greenough and Nat Young, John Witzig was exposed to some of the finest surfing of his era, by people who were front runners in developing the styles and techniques the came to be used in shortboard riding.
We both have fallen in love with the book, so we wanted to catch up with John and learn more about how it came to be.
What led you to photography?
While I’d tried out the hand-me-down Box Brownie when I was about 10-years-old, and had a brief flirtation with my mother’s 35 mm camera, I really came to taking pictures through surfing, not the other way around. I was a photograph and magazine-obsessive from my teenage years. The pictures that caught my eye were mostly B&W, and from magazines like Twen (from Germany), and Life (from the US)... and they were mostly social documentary images. Life was running extraordinary pictures from the Vietnam War, and Twen seemed so radical to a polite well-bought-up boy from Sydney.
How did you start using Nikonos cameras?
I think I realized quite quickly that standing on the beach with a camera stuck on the end of a long lens was going to get pretty boring. I’d begun to take surfing pictures semi-seriously by 1963, but it took me a while to get my first second-hand Nikonos... maybe 1967? I’m no longer sure. It was the only waterproof camera on the market at the time, and while my success rate with it was really low, a handful of those pictures still strike me as being good.
You captured some of the most stylish surfers and innovators of the era. Were you aware of the scope of what was going on at the time? Did you have any inkling they would become legends and icons?
By mid-1966 I have no doubt that we – being primarily Bob McTavish, Nat Young, George Greenough and me – were sure that something significant was happening. It wasn’t clear what it was... and certainly not that it was the start of what would become the shortboard revolution, but we knew that things were moving. I edited an issue of Surfing World magazine in July/August of that year and trumpeted the ‘New Era’. That did annoy some people at the time, but history seems mostly to have been generous.
By publishing photos and texts, founding Tracks and getting a wider audience, did you feel like you were instigating part of the change in the culture?
I’m not sure that we were getting a wider audience; surfing in Australia in 1970 was a tiny world. Tracks certainly appealed to the vulgar, juvenile, environmentally-conscious side of that audience (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). Our influences mostly came from the US – Rolling Stone, Earth Times and Whole Earth Catalogue – but I think it’s fair to say that we gave the magazine a uniquely Australian flavour.
On the technical side, could you explain your choice of sepia tones over black and white?
When I did my first set of four prints to try and sell in 2002, it seemed a no-brainer to use sepia because it comes fully-equipped with nostalgia. Three of those first pictures were B&W anyway, and I’d always liked selenium-toned prints. I’d never actually toned the prints I did myself, but I remember one print of Nat at Honolulu Bay in 1967 had acquired those tones... probably because I hadn’t washed it well enough I suppose. I used that as my model.
Overall there seem to be fewer color photos - how come?
Purely a personal preference... I still generally prefer B&W pictures.
Tell us the story of how the Golden Age book came to be. When and why did you have the idea and how did it all come about from there?
Drew Kampion has been a friend of mine since he was editor of Surfer magazine in the mid-1960s. He put Richard Olsen in contact with me... Richard was doing a book on hand-made houses and Drew knew that it was an area that I was interested in. I did a bit of research for Richard on possible Australian examples, and in the process learned that he’d worked for Rizzoli. Richard is a surfer, and knows my pictures. He asked if I’d be interested in him proposing a book. Of course I said ‘yes’... but the idea was never mine. The whole thing was such a long-shot, such a fluke, that it’s astonishing that it happened... but it did! ‘Thrilled’ doesn’t quite describe my feeling when I finally saw the book... and overall it was a great collaborative experience between Richard, Kathleen Jayes at Rizzoli, and Jim Newitt (another surfer) who did the design.
How has your level of interest in surfing changed since taking these photos and making the book?
I stopped surfing in my mid-40s when my body started to collapse... I have chronic osteoarthritis, and having my knees and hips go downhill together was unfortunate. I’d also long- since decided that I was never going to be a nuisance out in the water. And my time of taking surfing photographs had come to an end by the very late 1970s when I had to actually earn a living. Surfing friends from the 1960s are still my friends though, so I keep an eye on what’s happening... even though I have nothing at all to do with it.
What is your your opinion of what surf culture has become today? Where are we heading?
I am not someone who bemoans what surfing has become... but I am astonished at pictures of the crowds that I sometimes see. I think ‘why would you bother?’ But I also understand that, in Australia anyway, you can still find relatively uncrowded waves without any real difficulty. That’s a great thing...
What projects are you working on now?
I have a business partner and we have published a series of books of Australian photography since the late 1980s. We’ve started work on the magnum opus of Max Dupain who was arguably the finest photographer of his generation. Working on a book like this is a true privilege.
Thank you, John!