A Golden Age

The photography of John Witzig illuminates surfing’s revolutionary 1960s and '70s

An archive John Witzig image from 'A Golden Age.'

As a founder of Tracks, an early contributor to SURFER, and one of the first true social documentarians of surf culture, John Witzig has employed his photography and writing to contextualize, and capture, monumental shifts in surf history for nearly 50 years. A Golden Age, a new collection of his photography, showcases perhaps the most fertile and volatile of these time periods--the early 1960s to the late 1970s.

At more than 200 pages, the book is a carefully visualized, and unusual, tour through the initial phases of surfing's post-modern age, as seen through the photographic lens of Witzig. "Some say art is best when it honors where it comes from," writes the late surf journalist Mark Cherry in the foreword. "Witzig's photography always does this. But although it has an unmistakable surfing pedigree, it can look uneasy sandwiched among other examples of surf photography. There's no smell of coconut oil, no cheap shots. His photographs are more than a technical exercise--they are pieces of art-directed reportage."

The color palate within A Golden Age is perhaps the most noticeable example of Cherry's point. The majority of the photos are presented in sepia tones or black and white, rather than color. Because of this, the shapers in their shacks surrounded by un-mown grass, the innovators experimenting with the limits of surf performance at Honolua, the two friends contemplating a right point on an empty beach, become unusual as examples of "standard" surf photography--but are also nostalgically immersive.

Witzig's use of detail and composition, blended with the subject matter, drives this feeling home. The earthy, "country soul" esthetic pervasive in Australian lineups during the time period is on display here, along with the accompanying cast of characters. Surfers like Nat Young, Bob McTavish, George Greenough, and Wayne Lynch are featured prominently. But instead of only documenting their surfing, Witzig allows their actions on land to humanize them and bring them back to earth. We see his subjects moving through fields and crossing streams, lounging on porches in Torquay and working on broken vehicles. As Cherry points out, they are all clearly surfers, but Witzig conveys this without relying on the presence of the ocean, or the contrivance of a board. "I needed photos that told a wider story than just what was happening out in the water," Witzig explains in a caption on page 15. "It happened to fit comfortably with my natural instincts and curiosity. I enjoyed documenting the life I saw around me."

As the book branches out beyond Australia, into Europe and Hawaii, and moves later into the 1970s, Witzig's eye for telling details and pivotal moments travels with him. The result is a chronicle of the Shortboard Revolution and a view of the quieter moments in between. Punctuated by the radical changes in design and performance that followed, and captioned by Witzig throughout with insightful observations and wry back-story, A Golden Age is a deeply layered time capsule that preserves the era of its focus.

Buy A Golden Age online here.

A cactus campsite. Photo: Witzig

A classic MR quiver shot. Photo: Witzig

Portugal. Photo: Witzig

Wayne Lynch at Bells. Photo: Witzig