Sydney Morning Herald – 'Spectrum'
26 November 2011
When John Witzig was taking the photographs that came to define Australian surfing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, what he couldn’t see didn’t alert him.
Witzig’s images of empty surf breaks and youthful versions of Nat Young, Bob McTavish, Wayne Lynch, Michael Peterson and other iconic surfers became the classics that caught a sense of Eden moments before the fall. Also the founding editor of Surf International and co-founder of Tracks, Witzig produced photojournalism that became collectible art, exhibited in galleries and sought after here and overseas. His occasional writings also captured a pivot in history, his provocative 1966 article for the US magazine Surfer ‘We’re Tops Now!’ announcing Australia’s arrival as a competitive surfing force. His failures also tell a story. He founded Sea Notes in 1976, thinking it ‘was what Tracks might become. It was a tabloid with lots of politics and sport as well as surfing. I aimed a bit high for the audience, and lost the inheritance!’
Throughout nearly 50 years documenting surf culture, Witzig had preserved thousands of unused negatives but not gone back to sift through them for lost treasures. The impetus to unlock the vault, he says, came almost a year ago when ‘I was doing a piece for Surfers Journal, which is a magazine that treats surfing as if it has a real history. I was planning to do a twenty-page story for them, but wanted to have more control over how the photographs were treated, so the piece didn’t work out. Then Surfing World showed an interest, and over a three-month period I sifted through these old negatives and proof sheets. I was quite well organised, and had processed a lot and put the negatives away. I had a hundred sheets of negs that had never been proofed and I began to look at them carefully, and found some treasures. I was looking for something and found something else. It was wonderful – I found gold. Some in there that I’d completely forgotten, others I’d only vaguely remembered.’
The result is a new book, titled These are (mostly) pictures you’ve never seen…It collects Witzig’s discoveries from his archive, some ‘that might have been run once in the 1960s but have never seen the light since’, but most never published.
One of the distinguishing features of Witzig’s photography is the breadth of the canvas; he wasn’t one to simply train his eye on the surfer and the wave. A result is that the most exciting discoveries emerged from the peripheries of his shots. His portrait of David ‘Baddy’ Treloar in the Fairy Bower carpark during a surf contest in 1974 is one thing, but in the background are many other stories: two children in nylon raincoats, an automotive museum of the 1970s, the Hawaiian surf legend Owl Chapman sitting cross-legged peeling an orange, and a thin line of simple cottages, now long demolished.
‘I found myself looking for the peripheral stuff, not the main subjects,’ Witzig says of his search. ‘I got a lot of fun out of seeing what was in the background. The great accidents in photography are where you shoot what you’re not actually looking at, and while I can’t remember what I was thinking at the time, I’m quite convinced I wasn’t trying to take this tableau of Fairy Bower in 1974. I was completely watching one thing, and found the other.’
Witzig had been a Sydney architecture student who worked on two projects – ‘a renovation for my dentist and building a house from scratch’ – before ‘nightmares of houses falling down’ drove him away from architecture towards magazine design and photography. He was ‘obsessed’ with the black-and-white photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and also that of the Depression-era farming families shot by Dorothea Lange and the photojournalism of Robert Frank. It is a narrative kind of photography, and while Witzig says he didn’t have ‘a second of prescience and didn’t know what would be interesting to people years later’, he ‘was aware that I was telling a story. Straight surfing pictures were not enough.’
So, for example, his rediscovered pictures of 1978 world champion Wayne Bartholomew do not show him on a wave: one has him towelling off behind a trailer, one having a drink with Peter Drouyn, another being mobbed by children on the sand at Bells Beach. One of Witzig’s favourites in the collection is not a surfing shot, but a picture of Glynn Ritchie and Mitchell Ray making breakfast near Bells Beach – the value of the shot being in the junk that has been emptied out of their Kombi. ‘They look like they’ve camped out a rubbish dump,’ Witzig says, ‘and to the side is a huge box of peroxide solution. What’s that about? Glynn and Mitchell were naturally as blond as you get. Why did they have it? It’s another story. There’s one of a group having a barbecue at the Wilderness surfboard factory at Palmers Channel, near Angourie. George Greenough is in it with a basin cut. There’s no wave, surfboard or surf gear in the shot. What makes it evocative for me is the milk bottle, full of milk, on the upturned crate beside the fire.’
The surprise, for Witzig, has been the rise of a new audience born years after the times he depicted. In 2007 his work was being exhibited at the Dickerson Gallery in Sydney when, ‘on the last day, the Sunday afternoon, I was sitting there and a guy in his twenties with his partner paid thousands of dollars for a couple of prints. I thought, ‘Why?’ I was too reticent to go up and ask, but I’ve wondered. I think they probably understand it was a remarkable period and worth documenting. There’s a nostalgic sense there, but it’s not their own nostalgia because it’s not their own past. They’re seeing something in there that touches them somehow.’
He speculates that it is the romance of a prelapsarian time that lights up the imagination of those who weren’t there. This is enhanced by the breadth of his canvases, but as a photographer, he knows that his artistic choices were determined by his equipment. ‘We had 400mm lenses that caught more of the ocean and more of the wave. These days surf photography is so tight, more about gymnastics and dramatic action, whereas our interest was more romantic. The surf trip was more novel and had a real romance about it which I thought was worth photographing. There was the idea of the ‘search’. We were all looking for a great wave, but it’s what we found along the way that I shot. There’s been the loss of that broader canvas. I would have loved a 1000mm lens, so I’m not saying I wouldn’t have used it, and Albe Falzon had a 500mm lens of which I was very envious, but you’re formed by what you’ve got.’ One of the rediscovered pictures shows Ted Spencer on a wave at Bells. ‘I had a Nikonos waterproof camera with a 35mm lens. You had to get unbelievably close. Ted was no more than a metre from me, I held up the camera and took the picture, it came out but was a total fluke.’
Bells features prominently in the book, as do Margaret River, Angourie, Byron Bay and Hawaii; personalities such as Lynch, Peterson, Spencer, Young and Greenough. For all his interest in recording that moment in time, Witzig is equally interested in the glimpses of what has not changed. ‘You look in the peripheries of the pictures at Bells and Smiths Beach in Western Australia. The landscape is exactly the same. I see that and think, after all the change, what a treasure – we’ve saved something!’
Baddy and Owl, Manly – 1974
Edition of 100 – image size 40 x 60 cm, matt size 62 x 80 cm
Unframed price – $475