John Severson Dead At 83
Filmmaker, publisher, and surf media mogul.
It is an anxious time for ink spilled on a glossy medium. As the web continues to grow, the surf magazine’s existence is getting further constricted. Which gives us plenty of reasons to hold the original surfing print pioneers in high regard. And saddened us all the more when we learned John Severson, auteur and founder of Surfer magazine, passed away over the weekend in his sleep at the age of 83.
John was born in Pasadena, Los Angeles in December 1933. He started surfing as a young teenager after his family relocated to San Clemente, “Which turned out to be the greatest move of my life,” John recollects in a video commemorating his 2011 Surfer Poll Lifetime Achievement award. “I became a beach boy, learned to surf. Got a camera and immediately took them to the water to shoot surfing. I continued my surf film hobby until I was drafted into the army.”
John was always a multifaceted artist, selling his work while still finishing a master’s in art education at Long Beach State College prior to being drafted. So by no means would he let a government-forced move stunt his passion.
And it didn’t. Courtesy of a thankful relocation error, the army stationed John in Hawaii. Joining the army surf team, he filmed the North Shore and Makaha during the heavy winters. The footage of which would be made into his first film, Surf.
With Surf being a commercial success, John would use the profits to make a follow-up film, Surf Surfari. But it was his film after that, Surf Fever, which debuted in 1960, that John made the dive into publishing. In order to advertise Surf Fever, he created the “First Annual Surf Photo Book” titled, The Surfer.
The hand-tailoured magazine featured screen-grabs from his 16mm film footage, cartoons, sketches, and photos from California and Hawaii. It made its first public appearance while John toured up and down the California coastline with other legendary filmmakers Bruce Brown, Bud Browne, and Greg Noll in the late 50s and early 60s while they were showing off productions such as Surf Fever, Big Wednesday, and Going My Wave. John would eventually start selling copies of the magazine to local surf shops up and down the California coast. Where it would normally sell out almost immediately.
The Surfer would soon become The Surfer Quarterly in 1961. It would then morph into the Surfer Bi-Monthly before ultimately becoming Surfer. For the most part, John did it all: Writing, design, art, and photography. He would eventually bring on venerable staff members like cartoonist Rick Griffin, photographer Ron Stoner, editor Drew Kampion and more to turn Surfer into a media powerhouse. But, it was always John’s photography, art, and sense of humour that set the pace.
After selling Surfer in 1972, John would move to Maui with his wife and two daughters, where he would continue pursuing his passion for photography, painting and of course, surfing. Interestingly, rumour has it the basis for this decision was because John lived next to then-US President Richard Nixon’s “White House of the West” perched on Cotton’s Point (by Trestles) prior. So John was the counterculture guy living next to the man. But his sister was dating a secret service agent working at Nixon’s house, who told her that they’d gone through John’s house and searched all his stuff at one point. This freaked John out enough to sell Surfer, his house and then move to Maui.
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