john witzig: A golden Age

Interview by Andrew Crockett


John Witzig is a name synonymous with Australian surfing and particularly surfing journalism. How times have changed with the latter. Back in Witzig’s era, communication to surfing magazines in California was a traditionally typed letter with black and white prints enclosed, sent via the local post office to wing its way across the ocean. Laying out a magazine was a tedious process with scissors and glue, the original cut’n’paste. Photography was a true artform and surfing photographers were rare animals indeed.

Witzig has seen the changes, from the early days co-founding the iconic Tracks magazine, starting other fringe publications like Surf International, being on board during fabled surfing safaris with such luminaries as Nat Young and George Greenough, in an era where a cyclone swell at Noosa translated into perfect empty surf. Times have changed indeed, both in the water and on land, but one thing remains the same, and that is John Witzig is still involved, albeit quietly. He has a new book, A Golden Age, published by Rizzoli in New York, coming out this year.

John, can you briefly describe the process of laying out a double page spread for an early Tracks magazine?
When I first worked at Surfing World, it was printed by letterpress, but by 1970 when Albe Falzon, David Elfick and I started Tracks, we were using litho printing. We had layout boards printed on cardboard with blue ink (that doesn’t read when it was photographed for a plate to be made from it). All our instructions were written in blue pencil for the same reason, and I probably still have some of those blue clutch-pencil leads still around.

We’d give the text to a typesetter, specifying the font, the point size and the width that the type was to be set to. We’d get back what were called ‘galleys’… long strips of type that we’d then cut to length and glue down onto the layout boards. We used to do the heading with a rub-on type called ‘Letraset’. We’d draw boxes in black ink to indicate where the pictures were to go. In the early Tracks days, those were all black and whites that we processed and printed ourselves.

The worst thing was when you had to do single-line corrections to the type. It was really hard to do that perfectly. Tracks was printed on the sort of press that did suburban newspapers, and quality wasn’t exactly the highest priority. Sometimes we did pretty well though.

Aside from all the work you do exhibiting your 60s surfing images, what surfing books have you worked on in the last few years?
I do occasional design and production jobs for other people (Rusty Miller’s Turning Pointis an example). I reckon that I should use the expensively-acquired experience that I have.

There are also, happily, continuing requests from magazines all over the world for pictures. Locally, in the past while, I’ve provided pictures to White Horses and Waves. Internationally, a couple of the Japanese magazines seem to like my pictures. I like their publications too, so it’s a good fit. Then there seems to be a steady stream of surfing books that need illustration, most recently Phil Jarratt’s history of Surfing Australia. I have some pictures that no one else has. I got lucky there.

How does this new book stand alone from your previous two books?
A Golden Age is the definitive book. It contains almost every significant picture I’ve ever taken, so that includes the majority of images from previous projects, if presented in a very different style. There are also pictures that haven’t been seen since the 1960s, and others that’ve never been published before.

Rizzoli are major US art publishers, so it’s kind-of a big deal for them to be doing a book of my stuff. My earlier efforts have been home-grown. That’s not to say that I haven’t been proud of them. I’ve always felt that there’s a lot to be said for genuine amateurism – that is being inspired by the love of the subject and the process.

Rizzoli in New York are the publishers… does this mean the book may only be available in theUS, or will Australians be able to buy it in bookstores too?
The book is going to be distributed in Australia by Hardie Grant who are good local publishers and have quite a bit of experience with surfing titles. It’ll be available in all major bookshops.

Is there much text in your new book or is it mostly photography and photo descriptions?
I was encouraged to write extended captions for A Golden Age from the point of view of a participant rather than an observer. I’d given that a trial run in the tabloid-sized These are (mostly) pictures you’ve never seen that I published myself in 2011. The vast majority of the people I’d photographed in those days were, and remain, my friends, so it’s not a stretch for the words to reflect that.

In addition, there are essays by the late Mark Cherry, Dave Parmenter, Drew Kampion, Nick Carroll and Steve Pezman. I’ve known most of these guys for decades, and they all have singular viewpoints and express them well.

Interest in the 1960s and ’70s seems to be never-ending. I can’t say that I really understand why that should be so. You can’t be nostalgic for something that you never experienced can you? Whatever, it’s a very pleasant surprise when people respond positively to images taken decades ago. I’m not at all obsessed with the past… for me, reviewing all of these pictures and making something coherent out of them, is very much a contemporary experience.

Author of the switch-foot surfing books, Andrew Crockett, interviews surfing characters of note and keeps a quarterly newsletter running. It is full of alternate stoke – his most recent one had an interview with Chris Brock and Ryan Lovelace. You can subscribe to that quarterly newsletter here.

A Golden Age by John Witzig is available in the US here.