The Golden Age: Revisited, with John Witzig
Words by Jed Smith | All photos taken and supplied by John Witzig It’s become known as the Golden Age of Australian surfing. A team of surfers, filmmakers and photographers traversing this vast island’s coastal fringes, occupying rundown farm houses, growing crops, tending chickens, dropping acid, and building a culture that has gone on to […]
Words by Jed Smith | All photos taken and supplied by John Witzig
It’s become known as the Golden Age of Australian surfing. A team of surfers, filmmakers and photographers traversing this vast island’s coastal fringes, occupying rundown farm houses, growing crops, tending chickens, dropping acid, and building a culture that has gone on to take over the world. It included modern day gods Nat Young, Bob McTavish and Wayne Lynch, among others, John Witzig’s photographs of whom have been turned into the hit exhibition, Arcadia, and toured around the country by the National Portrait Gallery. It’s presently on show at Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah (halfway between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast) for any North Coast and SE Queensland history buffs. We had a chat with the man himself, John Witzig, about what those days were really like.
Stab: Was the ‘Golden Age’ really better, John?
John Witzig: Good question. I figure I was lucky and my generation was lucky in that there was a lot more exploration, a lot more adventure, and those were the primary characteristics of that time. That to me was a hell of a lot of fun. The uncrowded days, it was hard not to think they weren’t a treasure, but we knew they were gonna disappear.
What was it like, seriously? We used to jump in the car in Sydney if we heard there was going to be a big swell hitting the north coast and we’d arrive at a place like Angourie and there would be nobody there. That’s what it was like.
Living in rundown shacks, chasing waves before all this up to the hour forecast modelling, back before there was any money in surfing. You guys were fucking out there, man… There were no bucks in it… you’re certainly right about that. That was a fact of life. I was involved with surfing magazines until about 1980 and then I had to start earning some money. Those days somehow lent themselves to the idea that you could just do stuff. None of us were trained in producing magazines, and to be honest the standards were just abysmal. You’ve gotta remember that. If you look at some of those early magazines they were just terrible… they were disgracefully bad. But nevertheless, I liked that spirit of the period where people just did stuff. That was great.
And some of the characters – Wayne Lynch, Nat Young, Bob McTavish – what kind of men were they? (Laughter) I described them as crazies the other day. I dunno, they were extraordinary individuals. There was a lot more eccentricity among the leading surfers in that time. That’s my observation, but I’m not sure if my judgment should be trusted. I don’t know any of the current superstars today. I observe their public personas and that may not be a fair thing to make a judgment on.
And what kind of women did they attract? (Laughter) Plenty. I’m not making comments about my friends’ sex lives.
You started Tracks. What kind of a publication was it back then? Alby (Falzon, director of Morning of the Earth) was working for Bob Evans at Surfing World. I was editing a magazine called Surf International. I got sacked and Alby had a movie in his head and knew he needed a vehicle, a magazine, to promote it, and the planets aligned. David Elfick was the third partner and he was writing for a pop newspaper called Go Set that operated out of Melbourne, but David ran the Sydney office. We all needed to do something. Alby had a plan, I had a plan. I think I can reasonably claim that the idea of Tracks being a tabloid newspaper was mine. I was aware of things coming out of the US: in particular an offshoot of Rolling Stone called Earth Times and also the Whole Earth Catalogue, which tapped into the spirit of the late sixties-early-seventies. Rolling Stone was a music magazine that ran stuff on politics, and I thought that if Rolling Stone can run politics, why can’t we run some of the social issues and political issues that were important to us? And we did.
And the acid, how good was the acid? (Laughter) I got into terrible trouble (mainly from myself) for saying that acid was an interesting drug. I think that was an accurate statement, but it’s really irresponsible to suggest to kids these days that they should do some of the stupid things that I did.
Do you feel like there’s a bit of resentment from some of your generation’s stars to what became of surfing? Oh, I dunno. I think some of them are pretty surprised. I occasionally hear bits of resentment. Things change, and that’s just life. (Resentment) is just a waste of time.
My favourite photo, and there are a few, ’cos you’re a sly genius, is the Cactus humpty your brother Paul built. Tell us about that. Paul, as you’ll be aware, did three surfing movies, The Hot Generation, Evolution and Sea of Joy, and then he did a surfing-based documentary where Reno Abellira and his then wife Joanne came out to Australia, and a whole group of them went around Australia. They spent some months at Cactus, and while they were there, they built that little shack and were living out of it and tents. It was reasonably well built. After the movie was done – it was called Rolling Home – Paul and Marianne decided they wanted to go to Cactus to live. Paul had bought a couple of thousand acres about 10 years earlier for next to nothing because it was regarded as valueless land for any economic purpose. And they started a camping ground down there providing the absolute basics, ‘cos it was a bit hard to provide anything else in those days.
What do you make of today’s surf culture? I look at it with some amazement to tell you the truth, but I’m fine with it. I’m not obsessed by the past or captured by the past in any sense. What happens is okay with me. I’m quite surprised by some aspects of it but it’d be surprising if I wasn’t. I’m not whinging about the way things change. It’s okay.
What’s next for you, John Witzig? Oh golly… I find it surprising that there’s a continuing interest in the photos I took through the mid-60s to say, the later-70s. The Fremantle gallery, which is quite a serious place so I’m told, has asked me to contribute to an exhibition they’re planning. I also have to find a home for all the prints from the Arcadia exhibition after it finishes at the Tweed Regional Gallery in mid-November. And I don’t have a clue how I’m going to do that.
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