John Witzig is a man who brilliantly captured the culture and character of surfing in its Golden Age. A humble guy who claims he was just a photojournalist with some interesting friends. The guy is a legend who documented the pretty rad life that him and his buddies were living.
John Witzig, Cactus 1977 after being hit in the face by a water housing
What do you do?
I spent over 30 years doing design and production on big illustrated books… principally photography, but mostly I now manage the archive of pictures that I shot in the 1960s and ’70s. There seems to be an inexhaustible interest in that period.
Tell us about yourself...
I’m 71 years old. I live in the scrub about 10 minutes from the town of Maclean on the New South Wales north coast. Angourie is about 30 minutes away. I built a little house there in the early 1970s and I still have friends in the area.
Where are you from?
I was born in Sydney and didn’t get to really leave until about the mid-1980s. It’d been in my mind since the very first surfing trips up here twenty-five years previous.
Tell me about your photos?
I never saw myself as a ‘photographer’… more a photojournalist I suppose. I edited a few surfing magazines in Australia and my interests were always broader than just surfing action photographs. I documented the life that I was involved with. I was never an observer from outside that world. Fortunately I had some interesting friends.
Favorite location to shoot?
The better known of my images were taken between, say, 1966 and 1980. What are probably the best groups of them were shot on the north coast of NSW in the late 1960s, and at Cactus in South Australia during the mid-1970s when my brother Paul, his wife Marianne and their son Ramy were living down there. It’s wild arid country that I found extraordinarily beautiful.
When you’re not capturing a sick shot, what can you be found doing?
When I was doing more traveling, I shot a lot of pictures… a very few saw the light of day in travel stories. But photography hasn’t played a major part of my life for 35 years. I love reading; I like walking on empty beaches; I make silly assemblages from stuff I find washed up.
Puccini, Mozart, Beethoven, Edith Piaf, Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, Lucinda Williams, where to stop? I discovered Dawes last night. I’m listening to them while I write this. I have wide musical taste, but nothing moves me more than opera.
Japanese, Thai, Italian…
‘You’d better be having a good time’… it’s not a saying as such, but something that seems important to me. It’s essential that we enjoy what we’re doing.
If you want a real saying then ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’ is attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca.
Is a book a ‘story’? I think so… then Cloud Street by Tim Winton.
What's your pet peeve?
My own impatience I think… you’d reckon that I might’ve grown out of it by now.
What's your Dream Ride?
I need to warn you that for around 15 years I had two second hand Volvo station wagons. They were tough and they were cheap because everyone hates them. Actually, a Kombi I had for several years from 1968 was my favorite car ever. I loved going on surfing trips in it.
Nature, beauty, artists, writers and really smart people…
If you could have a beer with one person who would it be and why?
It’d be several glasses of wine, and it’d be with the late editor of Surf Guide magazine in the mid-1960s, Bill Cleary. I wish that I’d had the opportunity to tell him how much the magazines he produced in California influenced someone in far-off Australia.
I have a lot of pictures in a significant exhibition that’s on at the moment, and there are other prospects in the wind. I sell prints of my pictures, and magazines from all around the world continue to ask for material. I’m also enjoy posting on Instagram. Maybe a book might come out of that… we’ll see. Overall I’m having fun.
What's the dream?
I’m living it I guess…
Midget Farrelly at Palm Beach in Sydney in 1964
Bob McTavish and the ’48 Holden, Noosa Heads, Queensland c. 1966
Nat Young… bottom turn at Honolua Bay, Maui, in 1967
Wayne Lynch and Bob McTavish in the hills behind Byron Bay in 1969
A house at Torquay in Victoria that was old and run-down enough in 1970 to be rented to surfers
Mark Richards at Halieiwa in Hawaii in December 1976
Buzzy Kerbox at Haleiwa in 1976