Magazines, People, Surf cultureObituary: John Severson 

-Words by Mat Arney, images by John Severson

John Severson

December 12th 1933 – May 26th 2017

“Before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’ — at least not in the way we understand it today.”

Sam George, former Surfer Magazine executive editor, 1999

John Severson, one of the founding fathers of surf media and one of surfing’s cultural custodians, passed away in his sleep at home just outside Lahaina, Maui, last Friday night aged 83.

Severson was born in December 1933 and grew up in Altadena, Pasadena, in northeast LA. In 1945, aged thirteen, the Severson family moved to San Clemente and John discovered surfing. As a gifted artist and with the intention of making a living from art and teaching, he attended college at Long Beach State majoring in art education but was drafted in 1957, almost immediately after graduating. He was posted to Oahu to work as a draftsman, putting his artistic skills to use making maps, and was “assigned” to the Army surf team.

“I had orders to practice every afternoon at Sunset Beach and Makaha. Yes, Sir!”

Whilst based on Oahu he shot film footage that he combined with footage captured at home in California to produce his first surf film, Surf. Following his discharge in 1958 he went on to produce Surf Safari (1959) and established himself as a surf filmmaker alongside such names as Bud Browne, Bruce Brown and Greg Noll. To help promote his third film, Surf Fever, in 1960, Severson struck upon the idea of producing a booklet rather than handbills that could be sold to the audience. He titled the landscape-format booklet The Surfer and it proved very popular, with surfers lining up to buy copies from surf stores. Severson’s intention was to produce a follow up the next year to promote his next film, but he turned enough of a profit that he decided instead to publish a quarterly magazine (briefly renamed The Surfer Quarterly and printed in standard portrait/vertical format), which was to become SURFER Magazine – an iconic publication that has now been in print for over 55 years.

In early editions of his publication Severson produced logos and artwork for his advertisers as part of a sweetener to tempt them to buy space, as well as producing the editorial content. He was soon able to employ staff though, and assembled an iconic team in the form of photographer Ron Stoner, cartoonist Rick Griffin, and writers and editors Bev Morgan, Drew Kampion and Steve Pezman. Throughout these early years of SURFER Magazine, Severson continued to paint, and produce surf films. By the 1970s the magazine had a readership of around 100,000, but Severson was feeling disconnected from the lifestyle that he desired; he felt that he was “evolving into a desk-ridden businessman”, added to which he was facing restrictions upon both access to his favourite local surf break , Cotton’s Point in San Clemente, and his personal privacy thanks to President Richard Nixon moving in next-door. So he sold up, and moved his family to Maui to get back to surfing and painting.

Severson developed leukaemia and passed away on the evening of Friday May 26th, 2017. He is survived by his wife Louise and daughters Jenna and Anna.

John Severson was a surfer and an artist; he wanted to share a true image of the sport that he loved and counteract what he saw as the negative image of surfers portrayed by Hollywood through the Gidget and Beach Blanket movies of the early 1960s, promoting a purer relationship with surfing. He did this through his paintings, his films, and most enduringly and with the greatest impact through SURFER Magazine.

“I like to feel that surfing is a little more artistic and light, with a sense of humor, because of SURFER Magazine”

John Severson, when interviewed for his 2011 Surfer Poll Lifetime Achievement Award.

Severson’s own relationship with surfing, and perhaps the most appropriate quote to remember him by, appeared on one of the last pages of that first copy of The Surfer alongside a beautiful image of a solitary surfer knee-paddling out to a perfect and empty wave:

“In this crowded world the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”

Thank you, John.