When the mainstream talk of surfing, rarely does it capture the essence of the culture. We have waxed lyrical on this very subject on these pages before and if you’ve read anything else about John Witzig’s exhibition at The Raw Gallery, South Melbourne you would see the comments are no different.

You will read of the time, the nostalgic air of black and white, and flourishing colour photos in blown-out hues. You will read of names like McTavish, Midget, Young, Richards and Lynch without context or place in history. What you won’t read is about what Witzig managed to instil in every one of his shots – not so much the surfing, but the energy of a culture, lifestyle and sport about to burst. And once it had, the next phases – the shortboard revolution, followed by the thruster, as the commerciality of surfing was realised and the business potential of the sport took over.

But for a brief moment in time, there was just surfing. There was the pursuit of the wave and anyone involved was asking how can they could make it last forever.

There’s one particular shot in the collection in which Witzig’s humble genius shines through. Early Morning Lennox 1969 captures the thrill of the arrival and the excitement that has been brewing in the car since leaving home, campsite or mate’s floor has come to fruition with all-time, peeling, right-hand monsters that the single fin board strapped to the roof of a Victorian plated Toyota Corolla looks like it could barely handle. Yet, by the arched back response of its owner, there is no choice in the matter. He won’t be able to get his wetsuit – probably still wet from yesterday – on fast enough. He’ll be doing the hop, step and stumble dance moves that only a stubborn, cold wetsuit can make you perform. The kind of unthinking forward momentum that only a man in a grey suit* would hinder.

This was a time when the innocence and naïveté of a moment existed. Only a couple of decades prior to this, surfing barely existed. It was something Hawaiian’s did on giant planks of timber. There was no reaction to the mainstream perse. Instead, it was the lifestyle driving the initiated forward. Surfing at this time wasn’t a sport, it was a lifestyle and if that meant that for more time at the beach, for more waves, you had to start a farm in then remote parts of Australia like Angourie, Lennox Head or Torquay, then you did it. In Witzig’s photos, it is this energy that propels the subjects, the desire for more of a good thing; something that didn’t hurt or alienate anyone and promoted a pure and simple relationship with the earth. It’s no wonder psychedelia and hippies are associated with the movement, but remember these guys were doing this for the first time – there was no ironic cool, no ulterior motive. If anything, the brilliance of John Witzig’s remarkable collection of photos is that they look so current, as if torn from the pages of a Russh magazine shoot.

RAW gallery will play host to the exhibition from now until Christmas Eve, so if surfing is your or a family member’s thing, the editions are limited but will go down very well under the Christmas tree.

On the night of the exhibition launch, Witzig was heard proclaiming, “I thought they were worthless ‘til all you guys turned up.” How can they be, when they mean so much?

*A shark.

John Witzig’s show runs until December 24

The Raw Gallery
11 Yarra Place, South Melbourne