Gallery: John Witzig

Words by Mat Arney & images by John Witzig

Legendary Australian surf photographer and journalist John Witzig claims that he “got lucky when his friends got famous”, however even just a cursory glance across some of the images that he has captured over the course of his career suggest that luck had only a minor part to play. A love and aptitude for both photography and surfing led him to document some of the most important events in surfing through the 1960s and 70s, just a few of which we are excited to showcase here with accompanying comments from John.

midget farrely photographed surfing by john witzig

Midget at Palm Beach – 1964

In mid-1966 I had the opportunity to edit and design an issue of Surfing World magazine. This was the ‘New Era’ issue. I was well acquainted with the collaboration between Bob McTavish, George Greenough and Nat Young at the time, and chose to make that the theme. I wrote a piece called ‘An end to an era’ that reckoned, accurately I believe, that the period of Midget’s sole dominance in Australian surfing had come to an end. Everyone read the headline, and few read the story. Clearly Midget was very unhappy with me.

nat young surfing at the ranch photographed by john witzig

Nat at Rights and Lefts, The Ranch – 1966?

Somewhere I have recorded what George said to Nat in the period leading up to the World Championships in San Diego… it was along the lines of ‘What do you want to do? Carve turns, or just stand on the nose?’ George’s surfing had an enormously influence on both Nat and Bob McTavish. For Bob it kindled the desire to make boards that’d let stand-up surfers ride a wave like George did on his kneeboard.

bob mctavish surfing a revolutionary v-bottomed surfboard photographed by john witzig

Headless McTavish – 1966?

I’m definitely the wrong person to ask about surfboard design… I wasn’t interested then, and I’m not now. The surfing that this picture shows epitomised the ‘involvement’ style that Bob enthused about… manoeuvres as close to the curl as possible.

bob mctavish stood next to an old holden car watching waves break at noosa photographed by john witzig

Bob McTavish and the ’48 Holden, Noosa – 1966

The old Holden belonged to a mutual friend, John Mantle. Why we took it to make a run into town from National Park I have no idea since Bob’s car is in the carpark. Why I didn’t wait until a better set came through before I took this picture is another imponderable.

nat young surfing honolua bay photographed by john witzig

Nat at Honolua #2 – 1967?

This is taken at Honolulu Bay on Maui in December 1967 when the V- bottom boards that Nat and Bob McTavish had bought to Hawaii really did work. Footage of this swell made a final of my brother Paul’s file The Hot Generation, and exposed an American audience for the first time to the advances in equipment and performance that was happening in Australia.

surfers checking the surf at lennox head photographed by john witzig

Early morning, Lennox – 1969?

A scene that you saw a lot during the 1960s in Australia… surfers camping over-night at a surf spot and about to have a cup of tea before they hit it.

wayne lynch surfing bells photographed by john witzig

Wayne Lynch at Bells Beach – 1969?

This picture was shot from a friend’s boat, not swimming with the little Nikonos underwater camera that I mostly used for water shots. The problem at Bells was that both approaches made the wave look flat.

surfers in western australia photographed from the water by john witzig

Nigel in WA – 1972?

This is shot with the Nikonos, and shows the best qualities of that camera… everything is sharp, you get the coastal landscape as an extra bonus, and I reckon that this picture gives you a real feel of what it was like out in the water that day.

surfer walking down to surf spot at angourrie photographed by john witzig

Fresh Mullet v.2 – c. 1972?

This was the locals’ track down to the break at Angourie in the very early 1970s. It wound down through beautiful banksia trees that perfectly framed the break.

mark richards surfing in hawaii photographed by john witzig

Mark Richards at Haleiwa, Hawaii – 1976?

I had the great good fortune to stay in a room next door to MR at Mrs Sutherland’s house on the North Shore for the winter of 1976– 77. Mark was responsible for me getting the room and I owe him a great debt for that. He also introduced me to some of the Hawaiians at Haleiwa, and that helped at a time when most Australian were looked upon with no generosity at all.

waves at sunset beach, hawaii, photographed by john witzig

Sunset Beach – 1976

My intention in going to the North Shore that winter had been to surf Sunset. It’d been an ambition for many years, and this was my chance. I was there for about seven weeks and I surfed there just about every time it was any good.

surfer sat on car bonnet checking the surf at bells beach, photographed by john witzig

Bells lineup – 1977

Arriving at Bells to see a rising swell is a great experience. In 1977 it got quite a bit bigger than this (and quite a bit better).

John’s book A Golden Age: Surfing’s Revolutionary 1960s and 70s was published in 2013 by Rizzoli and is available internationally through all good book retailers.  Prints are available through John’s website.

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