Long read: When Witzig was the king of ink
There are very few people in the history of Australian surf media whose influence approaches that of John Witzig. From the very beginning he had a distinct vision. One in which surfing was more than simply the riding of waves, it was a distinct culture. As a photographer and magazine editor he caught the spirit of the times and portrayed them vividly.
blindboy caught up with him during his recent Sydney exhibition.
Swellnet: Let’s go back to the very beginning. When did you start surfing?
John Witzig: Not until the first shortboards began to filter out. My first board was a homemade plywood copy of a Malibu and the next one was a second hand Gordon Woods plywood one. There was very little balsa around and they were expensive. That was around ’58 or ’59.
Where were you surfing then?
Palm Beach mainly. The boards were so heavy we used to put them underneath the Cabbage Tree Club. Obviously none of the kids were members and I’m sure they knew what we were doing. We were very sneaky but I guess that they were just amused by us. Our family had a holiday house between Whale Beach and Palm Beach and you couldn’t carry a board home. It was out of the question.
So who was surfing there at the time?
Down there in holiday times was very different to the rest of the year. They were really two completely separate groups of people. The locals were mainly the sons and daughters of local tradespeople; that seemed to be the main community in that area and I suspect a lot of the northern beaches. There weren’t rich folk who lived there all the time, they came down for holidays.
Who impressed you?
Nobody in particular. There were a couple of good local surfers actually Micky Mabbott is one I remember, and Rodney Sumpter, a little later.
Rodney 'Gopher' Sumpter at Wategos, 1962. The photo accompanied a 1963 story in Surfing World, a "terrible, terrible story", says John, but Gopher's bottom turn stands the test of time (johnwitzig.com.au)
So when did the photography come in?
Because it was such a little world on the north side there were only a few surfing photographers around. John Pennings was shooting early and I got to know Ron Perrott once I could move around a bit. When I turned 17 in 1961 I used to pinch my mother’s car so we would go to Dee Why if there was a big swell, or Fairy Bower. North Narrabeen I never particularly got to, I don’t know why.
Ron Perrott was I think the best of the Australian photographers at that time. I’m talking about the north side. We never went to the south side, (laughs) ever. Cronulla was another country!
I was aware of Jack Eden’s magazine Surfabout which I think came out about a month before the first issue of Surfing World. The two launches very close. So Ron was taking pictures and we ended up being friends and I went on a few surfing trips with him. He loaned me a camera and a lens in 1961 and I took a few surfing photos of Nat at Collaroy Point waving his arms around. They were my first photos of Nat, he was about 14. I took them to a chemist to be processed of course and I’ve still got one of the prints. They were about that big [holds thumb and index finger a few centimetres apart] with a little white border around them.
Did you sell any?
Oh no… this is well prior to that. Then I shared a camera with Kenno [Bob Kennerson]. He and I put in together to get a Practika body and a Tamron 400mm lens. My memory is that was the cheapest unit you could get. That plan fell to pieces because I shot a magnificent roll of pictures and Kenno thought the camera was empty and opened the back. So that was the end of the shared camera but I think I got another one fairly quickly after that. It would have been really basic. At some point I picked up a second hand Novoflex lens. It was only 400mm but it was way better than the Tamron, quite sharp and had rack and pinion focusing which I found easier.
So what were your ambitions in photography? Were you just looking at surf photography?
I had been really interested for several years in black and white pictures and I was getting some European magazines which had striking photography and were displaying it splendidly. So I was a magazine junkie and obsessive about black and white images, but I actually came to photography through surfing… that was the reason I got my first camera. I also wanted to document what was around me because it’d dawned on me that just taking surfing action pictures standing on the beach was pretty fucking boring.
Ron Perrott had introduced me to the mysteries and joys of the darkroom… and that was exciting, but it would be some time before I’d even convert a bathroom or laundry into one. I have no idea who did my processing and printing in the very early years after I’d got past the chemist option.
I did a story on a trip to Byron Bay that Bob Evans ran in Surfing World in 1963 and it was really bad. It was a terrible, terrible story but there was one picture of Gopher [Rodney Sumpter] at Wategos which still actually stands up as an interesting picture of the times. Everything else about that story was appalling.
So you continued contributing to Surfing World?
Yeah, I can’t remember the sequence but the first big story I did was on Noosa was probably in 1965 and Noosa was still being protected as a secret spot. The story was called ‘Rincon is where you find it’ and we didn’t identify the breaks at all. Evo [Bob Evans] let me lay it out as I had done some graphic design in architecture school and knew that I could do it better than they would. And then in the July/August issue of 1966 Evo let me loose to do a complete magazine which came to be called the New Era issue.
At left, the cover of Surfing World, September 1965, with Rincon as an idyll for the as-yet unnamed Noosa, and at right, the 'New Era' issue of July/August 1966.
I’m assuming you weren’t making a living out of this.
Of course not, and I wasn’t even called the editor! Evo was the editor because he needed the cred. Bob didn’t really connect with what was happening on the beach, but he was smart enough to think that I might… and I did at that time. I was hanging around with Nat, Bob, George Greenough… Wayne Lynch and Ted Spencer a little later.
And that was on the northern beaches?
Yes, but I was also getting up to Noosa from '64 or '65. The first transparencies I’ve got are dated are February 1965, but I don’t think they were from the first visit as I have some black and whites that probably predate them by a year. There were also the trips to Bells every Easter. Those started for me in 1963.
When did you write ‘We’re Tops Now’?
It was run in a less inflammatory form and without that title in Surfing World in January 1967, and attracted not a single comment. Then Surfer ran an unbelievably stupid article called ‘The High Performers’. It featured Mike Hynson, Corky Carroll and David Nuuhiwa gushing over one another about how they were leading the world. This is not long after Nat had won the World Championships in San Diego…and as I remember he didn’t get a mention.
I pulled out the piece we had run in Surfing World, amped it up quite a lot I suppose, and sent it off to Surfer. John Severson made it even slightly more offensive, gave it that dumb title and ran it as the cover story in May 1967.
The controversy went on for more than a year. George Greenough was delighted…he loved the shit-stir. Fifty years later, Matt Warshaw [author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing] would write “Witzig… in response to Surfer shamelessly stonewalling Australia’s rise to dominance after the 1966 World Championships… roasted the entire purblind Dana Point Surf Establishment with ‘We're Tops Now’—still the best, most righteous ‘fuck you’ surf article ever published.”
How do we compare? A gentle open-ended question becomes the most righteous ‘fuck you’ surf article ever published.
So when did you become involved with Surf International?
That was later ’67. Gareth Powell had offered to buy Surfing World from Evo but Bob said no because he needed it as a vehicle to promote his films… that was basically what was going on. I don’t think anyone made any money out of Surfing World at that time. So Gareth Powell offered me the editorship of a new surfing magazine. I suppose it was disloyal of me to leave Evo who had given me a break but I was 23. Who’s going to knock back being the editor of a new magazine? Not me.
So that was a huge step forward in terms of quality, do you think?
In everything! It was printed in Japan by Dai Nippon, and in Gus Cohen we had a really good art director. Both the art direction and the content were enormously variable through my period, but every now and then we did some really good stuff in my opinion. I think some of it really stands up quite well. Though the New Era issue of Surfing World as a complete package in both design and content is also something I am absolutely proud of as the first issue of a magazine that I ever produced.
So who else was involved in Surf International?
It was a one man show?
It was pretty much, yeah.
Did you realise the impact it was having? It seemed so influential.
Albe Falzon would be terribly disappointed to hear that! He took over my position at Surfing World and I’m sure he thought he was doing edgy stuff there. But no, I don’t think I particularly knew. I have always pretty much ignored how things are responded to… other than being amused by it. The plus of that is that you can do anything you like. I figured no-one ever read the stories so I could write whatever I wanted to.
You got to go overseas?
We went to Hawaii at the end of 1967 and that was the Honolua Bay thing with the vee bottoms. We all knew something was happening. If you read Nat and McTavish a year earlier bouncing off each other in the New Era issue of Surfing World, they say things are changing. They’re not half arsed about it, they’re saying it directly.
So by a year later when we went to Hawaii it seemed pretty clear to us. But on the North Shore, the dismissal was complete. Bob was said to have spun out on every wave at Sunset. He may have, but he made an impact, on some people anyway. Then we went to Honolua where the waves were far better suited to those boards. Paul [Witzig, filmmaker and John's older brother] was the only cinematographer there and that footage made the finale for The Hot Generation. I was the only photographer there and Surfer ran my pictures in mid-68. They weren’t in a hurry. Severson was under pressure from all his mates, all the big surfboard manufacturers, who did not want shortboards coming in while they still had a whole lot of noserider stock to sell.
But you ran them in Surf International earlier than that?
That didn’t get to the States. The real impact was when The Hot Generation was released over there, and then when Drew Kampion came in as editor [of Surfer] and did a shortboard issue. Whether the Honolua Bay photos were in the shortboard issue, I can’t remember, certainly one of them was on the cover with a vee bottom cutout of Nat at Honolua. That all happened within a relatively short period of time and the impact in California was dramatic.
At left, the February 1968 issue of Surf International devotes the cover and much of the contents to Nat and Bob's groundbreaking surfing at Honolua Bay - the theme continues into the next issue of Surf International. Meanwhile, the Americans dismiss what's happening. It's not until September 1968 that John's photos appear in Surfer.
For me those photos of Nat really confirmed that something different was happening, but Surf International didn’t last very long did it?
No, I got sacked after I did the Country Soul issue. The irony was that I had put a line on the cover from The Animals’ song ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ and Gareth Powell was rude enough to suggest I might take my own advice.
Why was that?
Because I was the only one making any money out of it. It wasn’t making enough money and I was on a reasonable salary, so Gareth figured it could be done without me. The trouble was I had all the contacts; I knew the advertisers and all the significant people. A guy called Paul Koller from Maroubra was the editor for several issues. But the Country Soul issue was my last one and that was early 1970 as I recollect.
So talking about that whole country soul thing, where was the inspiration coming from?
Reality. We were reflecting what was happening. You know as well as I do that I’ve been blamed for leading people astray, for getting people into drugs, for ruining lives and I think that’s just bullshit. We were reporting what we saw around us, and arguably in a slightly more romantic way than was actually the fact, but hey, that’s what magazines are all about.
So I had a gap between the Country Soul issue and I think October when we did the first issue of Tracks and that publication really was my idea. At one stage I read an interview with David Elfick in which he seemed to be saying it was him who pulled it all together. Sorry, but that’s not true. The name was mine, the typeface was mine, the concept of a newspaper was mine. I was looking at Rolling Stone, Earth Times which was an ecology newspaper out of California and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue. I had friends from California living here so I was exposed to all of that early on. It made a big impact. Rolling Stone ran stories on politics for chrissake!
Earth Times was influential because we were very much believers in environmental causes, as surfers we still are, but not with the passion of those days. The rutile thing gave us an absolute target to fight against. In the late-60s the NSW government of the day let the rutile miners basically rape the north coast. What they did was to destroy all of the foreshore sand hills which immediately changed sand distribution. Basically they took all the rutile out, piled the sand up a bit and planted Bitou bush which still remains today a terrible invasive pest.
It was absolutely appalling if you loved those beaches as I did. And it wasn’t just the north coast, the Myall Lakes area were shredded too. It really was a cause celebre in those days. Someone sank a dredge on the Myall Lakes and I was so delighted about that.
Later in the 1970s, Bernie Huddle, who was a surfer from Long Reef I think and a member of the Labor Party, got to write a utopian environmental policy which, when Neville Wran was unexpectedly elected in 1976, was put into practice. The whole thing was absurd, it couldn’t happen, but it did, and that’s the reason for a lot of the coastal National Parks that we now have in NSW.
Wasn’t there a story in Tracks about Lester Brien getting arrested?
I covered Lester defending Garth Murphy because he had a medallion on his keyring that had Snoopy lying on top of his kennel saying “Fuck it!”. And Garth left it in his post office box at Bangalow twice. The second time they prosecuted him for obscenity. It was hilarious. I went to Byron Bay Court and Lester was pretty hopeless. I could have defended Garth better, but he got off anyway.
I got the line which was on the cover of the ninth issue of Tracks from the court case. I had long hair and was probably untidy, but the sergeant who was in charge of the prosecution leaned across to me and said, “This is one place the surfies aren’t taking over.” I thought “You poor fuckin’ idiot, you’ve lost that war…it’s not even a battle anymore”. I put that quote on the cover with two of Albe’s pictures, a frame from Morning of the Earth and a lovely picture of Stephen Cooney with the old lady who lived half way up the Angourie road.
I ended up leaving Tracks after 18 issues. So I wasn’t around when Lester got into the Royal Commission and got hammered…that was a bit later.
Tracks, Issue 9, June 1971
Who was actually working with you on Tracks?
For the whole time I was there it was Albe and me with some input from David. Albe and I did the first three issues together then we decided to take turns which suited both of us as he was shooting footage for Morning of the Earth. I knew I wanted to go back to university but I can’t remember exactly how that all fitted together.
After the success of Morning of the Earth Albe and David wanted to do Crystal Voyager so they just presented me with an ultimatum that I would be doing the magazine full time. I’ve never met an ultimatum that I couldn’t say no to, so I had to leave.
So what came then?
Well, we all remained, surprisingly, on quite good terms with each other so I continued to use the Tracks darkroom and to contribute for quite a long time. Albe was generous to me in how he used my pictures. In late 1972 I started building my house at Angourie with the settlement I got from the Tracks deal.
Angourie always featured strongly during your time.
There was no feeling that we needed to be fair or to try and cover everybody or every place. We were just basically documenting our own lives and interests. Now that may seem completely unreasonable, but it didn’t seem so at the time. It was all amateursville anyway and we certainly couldn’t afford to get around the country to do stories. There were exceptions like Bells of course…you had to go there.
Yeah I think people tend to forget that at that stage surf media had no real budget.
There was no money there, no money at all. Tracks began to be successful quite quickly which was a bonus. We connected with our...aah, audience, (laughs) one way or another. The parents disliked us but the kids were enthused ’cos we were rude and vulgar and we were sticking the finger up to any authority we happened to come across
…as is appropriate at that age.
Well perhaps we should have been getting over it by our mid-twenties but we obviously weren’t.
Another thing that has been lost in the mists of time is the degree of conflict…the generation gap and the virulent opposition to people with long hair who were smoking dope and didn’t have anything better to do than go surfing. ‘Drug taking dole bludgers’ was a lovely expression that was applied uniformly to anyone who had a surfboard.
So did you encounter much of that toxic personal hostility?
Occasionally but not really. In the early seventies Dennis and Chris McPherson and I went to have a meal at the Yamba Bowling Club. We were walking across the path between the greens and the manager came running out to tell us we weren’t welcome. There were silly things like that, but I don’t remember any personal antagonism though I am aware it happened to others. I was actually pretty straight you know.
I remember you in Hawaii in ’76.
I had been in Europe for eight months after I finished university and was working in London and planning to go back to France for their autumn when I received a small inheritance. I changed my plans and headed to California for a month, and because I’d always wanted to surf Sunset, on to the North Shore. I was looking for a place to stay when I met Mark Richards and he told me there was a room available at Jock Sutherland's mother’s place. So I went down and met Mrs Sutherland and scored the room. It was idyllic. The break called Jockos was out the front and it wasn’t surfed a lot.
Then I met Bernie Baker and Leonard Brady, so I used to hang out at Bernie’s house which in those years was surfing central when Sunset was breaking. So I had the right introductions. I surfed Sunset every time it broke and was riding good waves out in front of where I was living. While I’d been in California Steve Pezman [editor of Surfer magazine] asked me if I would like to write the lead story for the winter, so that was my side interest.
As Rabbit prepared to bust down the door, and thereby draw his hapless colleagues into a cross-cultural melee, John approached the Hawaiian season of '76/'77 with one goal in mind: get stuck into big Sunset (johnwitzig.com.au)
So what do you remember about the events of that year?
Rabbit being beaten up and Ian Cairns being threatened had happened before I arrived, but that was the background. They were basically hiding out in the Kuilima [now Turtle Bay Resort]. I remember Rabbit saying he played a lot of tennis that year. MR, as you know, wasn’t amongst the Australians who were being targeted and I benefited enormously through my connection with him. I was even allowed to surf Haleiwa.
So you did you have any insight into the underlying conflicts?
To me it was fairly obvious. Even the Australians, had they thought about it, might have been offended by some of the attitude Rabbit would display in his ‘Busting Down the Door’ article. That was a red rag to the Hawaiians. It showed no respect. And you know what Ian’s like, he’s never backed down or changed his mind about anything in this life. And the historic background is that the Hawaiians had had their country stolen by white folk. Remember that they never let a Californian win the Makaha Contest.
I understood why the locals behaved the way they did. But the link with criminals was potentially very dangerous. Someone could have been killed. Well, that was what I was told by people who knew a bit about that world.
A few years ago for the Rizzoli book I was working on [A Golden Age] I asked Jack Shipley if I could use some material from an interview I did with him at the time that had not been used and he said “No, I still have to live here.” And we’re talking forty years later. That was more about how some people who might have calmed things down chose not to do so and looked away. Jack didn’t want to be associated with naming them.
So how was it resolved?
I have it on good authority that the sponsors heard things were at boiling point on the North Shore. They didn’t want to be associated with something that might go bad, so they told Fred Hemmings to get it sorted.
So Fred rang Sol Aikau and told him that Smirnoff and some of the other sponsors had got wind of the strife and how he’d better do something. So Sol sent Eddie out as a mediator…a variation on his previous role as a provocateur. Eddie simply arrived at the Kui Lima and walked in and said, “Ians, Rabbits, Townend, upstairs” and so started the discussion that resulted in the meeting where everyone had a go at the Aussie bastards and after things quietened down.
What are the continuities between surf culture then and now?
I could bad mouth all the changes if you want me to but I can’t see the point. And things weren’t always perfect for chrissake. I’m not going to whinge about all the things that’ve changed, it’s pointless, a wasted effort.
I also happen to think that, not at Bondi, not at Angourie, and definitely not on the Gold Coast or at Noosa, you can still go and find waves and experience it in a way that’s virtually unchanged from when I was a teenager and first travelling around the country. That to me is an enormous positive.
I had an incredible time surfing Noosa with almost no-one there, surfing Angourie with no-one there at all. So I was extraordinarily fortunate, but I reckon you can still find the heart of the surfing experience… it’s still there.