Review: White Horses - 'Southerly'
Need I bore you with yet another history lesson?
OK. I promise I’ll be quick.
As the internet revolution usurped print as the medium of choice, legacy media was forced to redefine itself. This wasn’t a simple repositioning but a desperate rush to adapt or perish. Not all mastheads survived - in fact, most didn’t. Despite their previous standing at the top of the totem, surf magazines weren’t spared the knife. Once considered the arbiters of cool, vital mouthpieces for cultural messaging, surf magazines suddenly found themselves redundant in that role.
So, what to do?
Those that survived - and keep in mind there are no mainland US surf mags left - largely shifted to doing what the internet either can’t do or does with muted success. Think longform journalism, deep character studies, and full-bleed, high-res surf photos - the kind of images that can be stared at for interminable intervals, the reader lost in the hypnotic visage, and that can be returned to time and again with each visit revealing new qualities.
If we were to describe it, the shift is towards discernment. Less readers, yes, but readers who care about a particular facet of our culture, and to how it’s presented.
White Horses celebrated its tenth birthday this year, meaning they printed their first issue just as the cliff top was approaching, and perhaps because of this they didn’t have to adapt or perish. From the first issue they set their own agenda with a healthy mix of storytelling (their tagline: ‘The sea has stories’), a clean design layout, and photo contributors operating at the top of their game. Conspicuously absent was pro surf gossip, pro contest results, pro anything, including the once-ubiquitous advertorial boat trip. In a decade, White Horses hasn’t deviated from the formula.
My interest in magazines has waxed and waned over that time, yet the latest issue - number 41, winter 2022 - caught my eye owing to the list of contributors. Thus did three days pass in anticipation for the evening lounge session, when I'd log off the computer and cosy up with analogue media. The issue is titled ‘southerly’, and each evening I read a different chapter on the theme.
The thematic issue is a print mag favourite. Think, ‘the Hawaii issue’, ‘the Indo issue’, the photo issue’, and when I put this to Editor Gra Murdoch he downplays the way White Horses do it as a way of reducing the moving parts. Less contributors, less correspondence.
Though fewer, it means each contributor gets a greater say. A twist on the maxim about still waters running deep. So for each ‘southerly’ location there’s one essay, and one photographer choosing their best work, and also providing extended captions to the photos. As well as some editors can caption, the most revealing insights will always come from the photographer themselves. They’re the equivalent of liner notes to a band’s music, holding fans in thrall while revealing yet more about the artist’s mind.
In this case, the artists are Peter Jovic (West Oz), Hayden Richards (South Oz), and Stu Gibson (Tassie), and they’re paired with writers Rob Holt, John Ogden, and Dustin Hollick.
So Murdoch deliberately (and modestly) takes a back seat to the contributors, for which he should be applauded, yet he’s not entirely invisible, running a full page meta conversation with himself in the introduction. That playful tone is matched wherever his pen meets paper.
On that point: In the foreword, Murdoch reveals his admiration for Surfing World through the 1980s. “All we’re really doing,” writes Murdoch, “is trying to recreate the spell cast decades ago by Bruce Channon and Hugh McLeod”. They being the duo responsible for SW’s “matchless golden era”.
Granted that period was a high water mark for inventive design layout, however this reader often found the copy sobering - Derek Hynd’s contributions notwithstanding - and could’ve done with a sprinkle of irreverence here, a dash of cheek there. Some levity to match the graphics. Did they think it would ruin the tone of the magazine? Lower the bar? Murdoch shows how both are possible. Discerning surfers are still up for a chuckle.