Q+A with John Witzig – Vissla AU
Your cart is currently empty.

Q+A with John Witzig

**How were you introduced to surf photography? **

Surfing in Sydney where I grew up was a very small world so you got to know a lot of the people� and that included Ron Perrott who was one of the best Australian surf photographers in the 1960s. I�d also seen the magazines that came out of the U.S. since the first issue of Surfer in 1959� and I was obsessive about (mainly) black and white photographs� magazines too actually. Ron loaned me a camera in 1961 and I shot some pictures of a fourteen-year-old Nat Young at Collaroy.

**What cameras were you working with?**

I�m not exactly sure, but I think that my first camera was a shared Practica with a 400 mm Tamron lens. That ended badly when the co-owner opened the back of what he thought was an empty camera. I probably then got something very similar because it was the cheapest outfit on the market. I progressed to a Pentax and a second-hand 400 mm Novoflex lens over a period of time.

**When was your first photo published? Who or where of?**

I had a story on a trip to Byron Bay run in Surfing World in 1963. The best shot in that was one of Rodney Sumpter at Wategos shot with a camera and lens I borrowed from a friend who happened to be there. The story was dreadful, but I liked being published� that buzz lasted.

**What was it like working with Nat Young, George Greenough, Wayne Lynch, Bob McTavish and many others in their prime?**

I wouldn�t say that I ever �worked� with those guys� they were, they are my friends. Yeah, I was working for magazines but these were the people I hung around with� who I went surfing with� although they were spread all over the country. Wayne was in Victoria, George mainly in Queensland, and Nat in Sydney in the mid-1960s. I saw Wayne the least because I went to Queensland more often

**Who was your favorite person to photograph?**

I�m not sure that I had a favorite, but the best group of shots are probably of Bob McTavish in the mid-1960s. We tended to have a pretty good time when we hung around together� but that applies to the other main characters as well. Ted Spencer said of a shot of mine of George Greenough checking film in his room that �only a friend could have taken that picture�.

**On your Instagram bio you say �John Witzig got lucky when his friends got famous.� Is this a true statement?**

It really is you know. I think that I had a good eye and a certain facility with a camera, but I was clearly better at picking my friends.

**Were you one of the boys who happened to have a camera, or did you set out to become an accomplished photographer?**

I never set out to be a photographer and I�ve never described myself as one. Photojournalist is closer. I liked being the editor best, and did that for four magazines in Australia between 1966 and 1978. Creating an issue from scratch is the really interesting job.

**What was it like photographing surf in the 60s and 70s?**

Much the same in some ways, but different in others. It was way more haphazard� there were no trips arranged by magazines for surfers and photographers as seems to be the case now. In 1967 Nat, Bob McTavish, Ted Spencer, George Greenough, my brother and I went to the North Shore and to Maui, but I really can�t think of one other trip like that. We�d sometimes end up in the same places because there was good surf� and the big contests like Bells and the Australian Championships drew us all together too. Standing on the beach behind a long lens is still the same� still boring. Water photography has taken an enormous leap though� I�m enormously impressed by the best of it.

**What inspired you to focus so heavily on lifestyle?**

Being an editor played a part in that for sure� story telling needs more than action surfing shots. I�ve also loved documentary photography since I was a teenager, so it was natural that I�d try to record what I saw around me. Even though I�m in very few of them, the pictures tell a story of my life.

**Did you set out to become a surf photographer?**

Nah, not at all� it was just part of the mix of being involved with magazines� and later big illustrated books. Without any training, I acquired a good working knowledge of design and production in a whole range of printed material. I also really enjoyed photographic editing.

**Did you get to travel much?**

I did okay during my 15-or-so years involved with surfing magazines, and then spent a couple of decades going to Asia to do press checks on books. I�d sit in a small room for two or three days while the job was being printed, and then go off to someplace interesting for a few weeks. I took a lot of pictures on those trips and saw quite a bit of SE Asia. I also got to Europe several times in the later 1970s and early �80s.

**Who were some of you favorite lens men from the 60s-70s**

Woody Woodworth for the romance I saw in his pictures� they made me want to go to those places; Steve Wilkings for his early �70s shots when he put a longer lens into his water housing; George Greenough for constant inspiration and for his shot of Russell Hughes in a tube� the first of its kind I believe.

**Your photographs are the definition of timeless. Were you aware of the significance of the surfers and time period of which you were documenting so well?**

Around 1966 I think that it was clear that something significant was happening in surfing in Australia� the result, primarily I believe, of the extraordinary combination of Bob McTavish, Nat Young and George Greenough. In the 1966 July/August issue of Surfing World we sure spelled it out! That wasn�t so effective, so we (well actually I) shouted the next time in a story for Surfer the following year called �We�re tops now�. People did notice that story. George especially enjoyed it� he thought it was the biggest shit-stir ever in surfing.

**Were you free to do as you pleased or did you have magazines and editors to report to?**

Between 1963 and �66, I gradually took more responsibility with the stories that I submitted� but I was still only a freelancer. The 1966 issue of Surfing World was the first one where I played the role of editor, even if I didn�t have the title on the masthead. I didn�t mind reporting to me� our meetings were very short.

**Did your approach to surf photography change when boards gradually got smaller?**

I don�t think so� I was sick of standing on the beach and the better later pictures of mine were probably shot with the little Nikonos underwater camera. I had a very low success rate, but some of them still look good to me.

**Did you ever quit photographing surf? Your work seems to of stopped after 1977, what happened? What inspired the change?**

Oh yes� by the very late 1970s I had to actually earn some money. I�d published a magazine called SeaNotes in 1977-78� it was intended to be what Tracks might�ve become had I stuck around. It failed and I needed to feed myself. I also had/have a lot of other interests.

**Do you still work with photography?**

A business partner and I have published a series of books of leading Australian photographers, and I�ve also worked independently for other publishers� mostly doing design and picture editing. I�ve spent over 25 years doing that kind of work�

**Do you ever shoot surf anymore?**


**What do you think of the current state of surfing? And do you follow it much?**

I have only a passing interest in the major competitions, and have never met even one of the current stars. I didn�t welcome the entry of gymnastics into surfing� and from casual observation it seems that a large proportion of aerials are done when the wave is closing out. But it matters not one jot what I think about it� and I don�t much mind what people do as long as it doesn�t harm anyone else� surfing is irrelevant given those criteria.

**Is there one moment from the Golden Age of surfing that really stands out to you?**

One of my favourite pictures what run in what we called the �Country Soul� issue of Surf International. I was staying with friends in a small farmhouse in the hills just behind Byron Bay. We�d gone to a market and unloaded all the produce onto the kitchen table and then the baby needed to be fed. I was using the magazine�s Bronica 2 1/4 square camera and I shot a whole roll of this scene. I love the light� it�s my �Rembrandt� photograph.

**What are you up to nowadays?**

I mostly simply manage my archive� there�s continuing interest in the pictures� from magazines, books and for exhibitions. I sell prints through my website � johnwitzig.com.au � and will soon have a presence in the U.S. through archiv-e.com � something that I�ve not managed to do previously. I have one major book project that�s just started and will take maybe 18 months to complete. That�s a labour of love� it�ll be the magnum opus of the great Australian photographer Max Dupain.

In 2013 Rizzoli in New York published a book of my pictures called A Golden Age. That was a significant honour. And an exhibition called Arcadia has just finished a tour in Australia. It began life at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. It�s rather surprising where your pictures can end up�


*[A Golden Age](http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9780847838288)*

Instagram / [@JohnWitzig](https://www.instagram.com/JohnWitzig/)

*Interview by [Kenny Hurtado](https://www.vissla.com/creators-innovators/kenny-hurtado/)*