Interview: John Witzig – A Golden Age, Surfing's Revolutionary 1960s and '70s
Big Sky Wire
By Michele Lockwood
Looking through John Witzig’s latest published work, A Golden Age, you come to realise the book is perfectly titled; the age was just that- golden. Innocence prevails within the imagery, a romantic time in surfing’s history where the unknown held so much potential for creative growth and the possibility in discovering what may lie ahead at each bend was a prime motivator.
Through John’s lens we get a candid view of life during the ‘60s and ‘70s that only a fellow surfer could’ve captured. The pictures are not so much about perfect composition but more about telling a story through feeling. Sometimes the narrative jumps out of the page and you’re ‘in’ on the joke, other images paint a more serene picture of uninhabited breaks that were yet to be named. One thing’s for certain, thankfully, John toted his camera wherever he went way back then, giving us a front row seat to view the spirited past of this rich sport that binds us.
CW: What was the catalyst that got these contact sheets and transparencies from the cardboard boxes into book form?
JW: I’d started selling prints over ten years ago and there was a continuing interest in my 1960s and ’70s pictures from magazines, so it was a gradual process. Bit by bit I got what I thought were the best photographs scanned. I have somewhere over 350 of those now. I’d worked in mainstream publishing since the late 1980s, so I knew that there was no money in books, but in 2007, Sam Dickerson, from the gallery who show my stuff in Sydney, offered to finance a small book. The Rizzoli project was a fluke – I’d helped a friend of Drew Kampion’s with some research for a book on handmade houses. Richard Olsen is a surfer who’d worked for Rizzoli as an editor. He offered to put a proposal to them for a book of my pictures.
Can you tell us about the editing process, how do you decide what makes it in and what remains unseen? Do you have someone you rely on for sound, honest feedback or is it just a solo intuitive thing?
I’ve spent years of my ‘professional’ life as a photographic editor – with great photographers like Max Dupain, David Moore, Greg Weight and Roger Scott. It’s not a big leap to edit your own material. Most people, it seems to me, are pretty useless at offering advice. Jon Patton has helped me when he’s been in Australia, and with A Golden Age I asked Mike Perry to be blunt about what should stay and what could go – that applied to the captions as well as the images. Broadly speaking, I do trust my judgement. The structure of the Rizzoli book was another matter. I got lost there for a while and Richard Olsen in particular was instrumental in getting it back on track.
Also what was it like to work with Jim Newitt? He’s a bit of a whiz when it comes to striking an eye-pleasing balance been the image, the word and the page.
Jim is a treasure! My editor at Rizzoli, Kathleen Jayes, asked me if I had any definite ideas about the design. I asked her to “find me a surfer as a designer”. Kathleen’s husband surfs, so that probably wasn’t as left field a request as it might’ve been with someone else. To my surprise, Kathleen did it!
Jim and Kathleen were great to work with, and the dread that I had of handing over my material to a big publishing house was simply unwarranted. It was a good collaboration, and I really was interested in seeing what someone else would do with my material. Jim was enormously respectful of the images – definitely more so than I am.
It seems these days that the interest in surf culture especially from the ’60s and ’70s has extended beyond the surfing community. Outside of the incredibly photogenic charm of this period, what do you think the allure is for the non-surfing audience?
I’m guessing that it’s a combination of factors. The sheer beauty of surfing comes across to people who know nothing about it, but I think that the obvious authenticity is really important too. Maybe people respond to that intuitively. As for the ’60s and ’70s, no one is immune to the romantic allure of the period – irrespective of whether it’s actually true or not.
Some of that really was true. There were empty surf breaks all around this country. But some of what we portrayed in the magazines of the time wasn’t quite as accessible to the average surfer as we made out. Did we tell people that? Probably not.
In the early days of shooting water photos, how much control did you have over the exposure once you were out in the water? Can you tell us a bit about the equipment you used back then on land and sea?
I used the wonderful little Nikonos water camera that had a fixed 35 mm lens. You could set the shutter speed and exposure, and also define the area you wanted to be in focus, but that was it. No one had light meters, but with 125 ASA Plus X B&W film, on a bright sunny day, the exposure was f.11 at 500th of a second. Easy.
You also had to get really close to the action or it looked as if it was the length of a football field away. I chose to swim, and often held the camera out in one hand, pointed it in what was the right general direction, and pressed the shutter. Even with surfing experience, it was a hit-and-miss thing, but sometimes I came up with pictures like the ones of Mark Richards and Buzzy Kerbox. I don’t think that I can make any claim for the composition of either, but I love both of those pictures. If you’re well prepared, you get luckier.
I imagine you have continued to photograph life around you. If so, what camera do you shoot with now and as far as subject matter what captures your interest and imagination?
I have a little Canon point-and-shoot that does a remarkable job, but my ‘real’ camera is a Nikon D80 with an 18–200 zoom lens. As one not-very-big unit, it’s terrific. I really like taking pictures when I’m travelling, but unfortunately I’m not doing so much of that these days. I document what I see around me. I’m trying to carry a camera with me more – it’s obvious that I did that obsessively in the early years, and the advantages are clear.
If the ’60s and ’70s were the Golden Age of Surfing, what would you call the current age?
While I feel that I was lucky growing up when I did, it seems to me that the personal surfing experience can be the same as it was in those years. There are lots of things anyone can whinge about, but one man or one woman on one wave retains the spirit that it’s always had. You might have to try harder to find it, but it’s unchanged – maybe even expanded in options. How do you express that? An age of choices maybe?
Big Sky is the property on which Andrew Kidman and Michele Lockwood live with their two children in Northern New South Wales. Once a week they speak to writers, photographers, surfers, artists and musicians for Coastalwatch's Big Sky Wire. To follow Andrew Kidman's film celebrating 40 years of Morning of The Earth, head to the Spirit of Akasha blog and to check out Michele Lockwood's blog click through here.
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