John Witzig - A Golden Age
John Witzig, is one of Australia's great surfing pioneers, documenting many pivotal moments and legendary personalities through the decades from behind the lens. We are privileged that John took some time to answer a few questions before his upcoming exhibition in Bondi.
Tell us a little bit about what you are up to these days. Where are you living and what are you doing to keep out of mischief?
I live in the scrub on the NSW north coast between Maclean and Brooms Head. I seem mainly to be managing the archive of pictures that I shot, broadly speaking, between the mid-1960s and around 1980. I spent about 30 years doing design and production on major illustrated books and maybe I have one last one of those to do. I have a business partner and together we’ve published a series of books on Australian photography under the Chapter&Verse imprint.
Your first story was published in Bob Evans’ Surfing World magazine in 1963. Bob later gave you the opportunity to edit and design a complete issue of the magazine. You were the founding editor of Surf International, and finally moved on to co-found Tracks surfing magazine. What was it like working in the print media back in those days and what are your thoughts of what has become of it these days?
I’d been obsessed by magazines and especially B&W photography as a teenager. I was seeing wonderful general interest magazines that came from Europe and it took no particular insight to see how awful the Australian surfing magazines were. I had no training in publishing, but some in graphics. In the mid-1960s when Evo let me loose on Surfing World, I was friends with the people who were about to change world surfing. I was lucky to get the opportunity, but I half-knew what I was trying to do.
John and Grant Oliver - Johanna 1970
Surfing World was printed on letter-press machines, and while that was a process about to be swept away by offset technology, I had the great good fortune to come into contact with tradespeople who had decades of experience in typesetting and the reproduction of images. That was hugely valuable for me.
I’m very critical of what I see as poor standards today, especially in typesetting. Those men who’d spent their entire lives with type would shake their heads in disbelief at what’s considered acceptable these days.
You went on many surf trips with legends such as Nat Young, Bob McTavish, Wayne Lynch just to name a few. Who was your favourite subject to shoot with?
Did I have a favourite? I’m not sure. I don’t think that I ever did a trip with Wayne, but we spent a bit of time in the same places over the years. Bob and Nat were the friends who I surfed with. They were both great to photograph. I also knew their surfing well which was a major advantage.
Wayne Lynch Bells Beach early 1970s
At the time were you aware that you were capturing something important or was it just fun and you were doing what you were doing?
In 1966 when I edited the July/August edition of Surfing World, it was quite evident that Bob McTavish and Nat Young were talking about change in surfing… major change, with George Greenough as the inspiration. All of them were featured in what came to be known as the ‘New Era’ issue… as, quite coincidentally, was a baby-faced Wayne Lynch.
So yes, I’d argue that we all knew that something was happening. We had no real idea where it would lead, or, probably, of its significance, but the excitement was there… with Bob in particular. His enthusiasm was utterly unquenchable. It still is.
Were you taking an image for itself or seeing the story behind the image?
In those days I was keen on the idea of following a theme in the issues of the magazines I produced… so there was an overall idea in my head. Because I was playing ‘editor’, I also knew that I wanted pictures beyond just what was happening out in the water. I wanted to tell the story of what I saw around me. That probably fitted with my natural inclination… or maybe I drove it in that direction. Those ‘around surfing’ pictures are the ones that give me most pleasure now… they are a social document of those times.
Bob McTavish Treachery 1967
What was your favourite Tracks cover from your era? And why?
I like several of them, but maybe #9 is my favourite. To me, it captures some of the romance of the Country Soul movement. There was a frame of Baddy from footage Albe was shooting for Morning of the Earth, and a lovely shot of Stephen Cooney with an old woman who lived half way out the Angourie road… and a quote from a police sergeant in Byron Bay who prosecuted a friend of mine for exhibiting an ‘obscene’ something-or-other. It was a medallion on a key ring with Snoopy lying on top of his kennel saying ‘Fuck it’.
Tracks Magazine June 1971 cover #9
Which modern day athlete would you like to photograph and document a trip with?
Someone who is interesting… not just an athlete. I don’t know either of them, but Dave Rastovich and Ryan Birch come to mind. They’re not mindless automatons.
What is the most exciting thing in your eyes about surf photography these days and what is the most disappointing?
The water photography of, what, the last decade, has surely lead sports photography… not just surf photography. Those guys are my heroes… I’m in awe of their talent and their courage.
The pictures that I really don’t like are the aerials without a wave in sight… although that sort of sums them up doesn’t it? I asked Taylor Jensen (who, unlike me, follows competition) if the vast majority of aerials were done when the wave was closing out. He reckoned that they probably were. I reckon that that’s not interesting… photographically, or in terms of good surfing. It’s the current equivalent of the fin-first takeoff of the early 1960s… that was much beloved by Californians.
Michael Petersen at North Narrabeen 1972
Which modern day surf photographers do you have the most appreciation and respect for?
I like the people who can somehow give me a slightly different perspective. I like pictures that put surfing into a wider landscape. I like photographers who can surprise me.
MR and MP at the first Stubbies contest in 1977
With digital technology these days we snap a pic, and then email it through to a magazine or simply publish to a digital medium. A lot more went into your craft. What was the process of getting the image from your camera to the magazine so it could be published? How long was the turn around?
I probably shot 75% black and white, and learnt early how to process and proof my own stuff. At Tracks we could be pretty quick when we needed to be: Don’t wait for the film to dry; wipe it down with a chamois; no question of doing a proof sheet; look at the frames against a light; chuck the damp film into the enlarger and get a print. Albe and I did that with a shot of mine we ran on a cover… it probably took half an hour in total… and we totally missed a far better image three frames along.
Ted Spencer at Ti-tree in 1960s
Everything you shot was on film. What was your camera of choice over the years and what film did you shoot with?
I started with a crappy body and a cheap lens, and gradually worked my way of to a couple of Nikons. I couldn’t help but notice that my pictures didn’t really improve as the equipment got better. I guess that I was quicker to grab a shot when I had a motor drive.
At Tracks we used to buy bulk FP4 from Ilford because it was on the way home from the city. Plus X from Kodak was much the same. We used and reused cassettes until they finally leaked too much light in and ruined pictures. I liked the higher speed of HP5 and Tri X for pictures on land.
The real advantage of FP4 and Plus X was that in those days when no one had light metres, on a sunny day, shooting out into the water, you knew that f.11 at 500th of a second would work. And that you could adjust in the darkroom.
Rodney Dahlberg at Spooky 1975
Do you own a digital camera? How do you find the experience compared to film cameras?
I’m a complete convert to the digital world. Anyway, I’ll never have another darkroom, so that’s that. I also welcome change in lots of ways. I do a lot of prints and spread them out on the dining table… that’s just the same as I used to do with darkroom prints. I’ve never acquired any serious Photoshop skills and don’t see any need to. I’ve never mucked around with my pictures much.
I’ve had professional scans done of the majority of my better pictures, so I know the digital world reasonably well. I can send large files around the world with astonishing ease.
Simon Anderson North Narrabeen 1975
You have an exhibition coming up. Where can we check it out and what will you be exhibiting?
I have an exhibition called A Golden Age opening at the Bondi Pavilion Gallery on 11 September and running for two weeks. There will be 43 pictures on the wall… the largest show that I’ve ever had in Sydney. To give context to the images I’ve used something that the writer Robert Drewe said when he opened the Arcadia exhibition at the Tweed Regional Gallery a few years ago. He expresses it so much better than me.
“Viewed simply as a representation of an alternative culture of the 1970s, Witzig’s photographs were valid and intriguing even back then. But viewed with today’s eyes, they seem almost impossibly innocent and idealistic, like looking at a remote tribe of wild-haired boys just discovered by anthropologists for the National Geographic.”