Photos by John Witzig
Vissla‘s Kenny Hurtado sat down with Australian photography legend John Witzig to talk about the good old days. Check out the full interview here.
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.