John Witzig is stunned that anyone would care enough about his surf photography to publish it as a book. “It has to be the world’s biggest fluke,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home near Angourie in New South Wales. The modesty is surprising coming from a guy who became infamous in the ’60s for essentially telling a continent of surfers they were second-rate, but the former firebrand of Australian surfing now sums up his career with the bio line “John Witzig got lucky when some of his friends got famous.”
Witzig had the good fortune of growing up in the middle of a surfing revolution—or “schism,” in his words, the heyday of which are captured in his new book, A Golden Age: Surfing’s Revolutionary 1960s and ’70s. At a time when surf culture was focused on California and mastery meant walking to the nose of your board and hanging 10, Witzig fell in with a group of Australian surfers who were experimenting with a faster, more gymnastic style of riding. Among them was George Greenough, a brilliant Californian expat who built small boards and rode them on his knees, making sharp turns and getting into the breaking part of the wave; there was also Nat Young, who won the 1966 world surfing championship in San Diego while riding the same torquing style.
The surf world shrugged off Young’s victory. “Surfing magazine completely ignored it,” says Witzig. “They ran the same old high-performance noseriding story again and again.” So Witzig, then 23, wrote a cri de coeur praising Australian shortboarding, “really amping it up,” and sent it to Surfer magazine, which amped it up further and gave it the bragging headline “We’re Tops Now.” “To say the shit hit the fan is a gross understatement,” says Witzig. “They got hate mail for years afterward.”
But the Aussies won the revolution. When you see pictures on the cover of surfing magazines today, someone is usually kicking up spray on a wrenching turn or driving vertically up a wave, surfing in the style Witzig’s friends pioneered. Unlike those pictures, though, which tend to zoom in close on the surfer, Witzig’s images capture the wave and the surrounding landscape. The sepia-toned photos he took while swimming out in the water give the waves a solid, geologic look. “I wish I could say that was intentional,” Witzig says, chuckling. “I was using a little 35mm camera so even out there swimming right on top of them you still got the whole scene.” He doesn’t care for those close-up shots popular today, though. “I’m unpersuaded by these close-up aerials where you don’t even see the wave,” he says. “It was really important to us that you made the wave, you didn’t just pick one part and do a bit of gymnastics.”
Witzig has other criticisms of the way surfing is done today: it’s big business, obsessed with competitions and with no time for the “romance, or the idiocy, of wandering around.” Some of Witzig’s most evocative shots are of surfers sitting in beat-up trucks watching a flat sea, or hiking along brush-covered bluffs in search of a new break. But he’s quick to add that he’s not obsessed with the past. “Putting together these pictures was a contemporary experience. I was really trying to make sense of it all and give it some coherence.”