An auction of photography by John Witzig titled Endless Summer gives Australian surf fans the chance to hang some unique slices of surf history in their home. For the rest of the world, it is an opportunity to revisit the photographer, writer and designer’s immense contribution to early surf culture (the images are only available in Australia).
Witzig’s career in surf photojournalism started with his first published article in Surfing World in 1963. From 1967 to 1969 he was editor of the now defunct Surf International magazine, and in 1970 co-founded Tracks magazine. He is perhaps best known for his “We’re Tops Now” article that appeared in SURFER in 1965. That was a response to the U.S. media’s dismissal of Australia’s rise to dominance after the 1966 World Championships that Matt Warshaw has called, “still the best, most righteous ‘fuck you’ surf article ever published.”
Witzig photography was however even more important. He was on hand for the exploration of Australia’s East Coast in the early 1960s and has the best documentary archive of the Australian contribution to the shortboard revolution from the mid-1960s.
Esteemed Australian novelist Robert Drewe has said of his imagery, “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 National Geographic.“
I spoke with Witzig about some of his iconic images that are available for auction and asked to explain the stories behind them.
Why the auction, and what do you hope people will get from owning these images?
What people get from buying my prints is one that I don’t really have an answer for. I understand that blokes my age can relate to them, but why younger people have an interest, I’m not sure. It isn’t nostalgia for something they’ve never experienced, but possibly an intuitive sense of the romance of a period that was less complicated than the world they’re faced with today.
As a collective of images, what do they make you feel now?
I am proud of my photographs as an accidental archive. Like everyone else who was taking pictures in the surfing world of the 1960s, I lost much of it. Magazines didn’t return transparencies or prints, and we didn’t treat them as having any real value. What images of mine that survived from the 1960s was due to good fortune, not good management.
It is easy to get misty-eyed at the past, but just how special was that time?
I see curating my archive – which is really what I do – as a contemporary exercise, and one that interests me… but I don’t get ‘misty-eyed’ about it. The 1960s in Australia was a terrific decade if you were a surfer. We were starting to explore our coastline. There was adventure and exploration and that’s a pretty good mix.
Editor’s Note: The following are extended captions from Witzig about a few specific images, beyond the gallery above.
Just how good was Wayne Lynch?
Wayne was probably the most gifted surfer I observed from a young age. He had a remarkable natural affinity with the ocean. Unquestionably he is one of the greats in my opinion. Wayne changed surfing.
This looks both beautiful and brutal. How tough was it living life on the edge?
I was only ever an occasional visitor to Cactus when my brother and his wife were living there in the second half of the 1970s, but “brutal” is a pretty good word to describe it. And it wasn’t just the elements that were tough. The “locals” were a feral lot, and fiercely resistant to any attempt to try and protect the fragile environment – which my brother was insistent on doing, and he did own the land. It is beautiful and a superb bit of the Australian coastal landscape.
Why is this one of the most iconic images in surfing?
What it is, is one of the most accidental of the photographs in my archive. It was simply a snapshot… I didn’t even wait for a good set. But to answer your question, it’s a combination of the fact that there is not a single surfer in the lineup, and then there’s the old car which helps immeasurably. If I was ever to offer advice on how to shoot an iconic photograph I’d say, “put an old car in it.”
How crucial was Angourie in Australian surf culture? And how much for a kilo of mullet?
HA… I forget how much Alex, who was a caretaker of the area, charged for his fish. Strangely, I don’t think that I ever bought it from him, and I did like mullet.
Angourie was one of the first of the really good New South Wales north coast surf breaks to be exposed in Surfing World magazine in 1963, but that doesn’t explain its almost mythical status in Australian surfing history. I think that Morning of the Earth, Albe Falzon’s seminal 1971 film, was responsible for that. Albe created a hero in David “Baddy” Treloar, and with that came his superb, adopted home break.
How was Europe in the 1970s? Just how much did that experience change your perspective on life?
I’d gone to Europe with my family as a teenager, so I’d had an early taste and had then gathered a fascination with France through reading (and drinking some of their wines). Both were good introductions to a country I came to love. It was 1976, a good time to be in Le Pays Basque, and I settled down for a while in the town of Guéthary.