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Arcadia

Thursday 14 August until Sunday 19 October 2014

‘By simply surfing we are supporting the revolution.’ - Nat Young.

Arcadia is an exhibition of lyrical, richly-textured photographs by John Witzig, co-founder of Tracks magazine and founder of SeaNotes, with huge ink drawings by Nicholas Harding and psychedelic film footage by Albert Falzon. Imbued with a Romantic conception of the awesome and spiritually restorative force of the sea, it expresses the free-spirited, revolutionary character of a group of young and perfectly-formed Australian surfers in the early 1970s.

Nat Young, c. 1968 by Albert Falzon
Nat Young, c. 1968 by Albert Falzon  

Robert Young grew up in Collaroy, Sydney, where he gained the nickname Gnat. Having grown, and changed his name to Nat, he won the 1963 Australian Invitational Surfing Championships at Bondi at the age of 16 and the world championship competition at San Diego in 1966. In 1967, on Maui with Ted Spencer, George Greenough and Bob McTavish, his intimidating physical presence, shortened board, and brilliantly aggressive, ‘animal’ style worked together in a sensational performance that was described by John Witzig, with some arrogance, in the American magazine Surfer. It’s Young who dazzles in the water at the beginning of Morning of the Earth before coming in to feed his chickens, his red setters gently nosing around and Stephen Cooney shyly standing by. Falzon’s photograph has never before been printed uncropped. The hitherto-unseen figure in the foreground serves to demonstrate that when Young was around, everyone else looked sort-of less-than- present; comparatively unfocused; a bit drab.

Nigel Coates and Murray Smith, WA, 1972 by John Witzig
Nigel Coates and Murray Smith, WA, 1972 by John Witzig  

It’s almost impossible to believe that this photograph, featured on the cover of Tracks in March 1972, isn’t a trick; but Witzig did indeed take it from the water, struggling to maintain his own position very, very close to the action. Murray Smith’s sleek neoprene form is lofted on a veritable mountain of water. His profile itself resembles a granite headland; the lobe of his ear, between sideburn and lock of slick hair, is in the exact centre of the photograph. Coates focuses on his own path but there’s a profound sense of connection between the two surfers. Smith feels, in himself, the sweet ride his friend has caught, and his chest swells with exultation as he waits for his own. They say you never surf twice on the same wave.

Ted at Bells Beach, 1971 by John Witzig
Ted at Bells Beach, 1971 by John Witzig  

Witzig seems to have been in a more precarious position than ever in the water for this shot; even if Ted Spencer can slice away, the crystalline wave seems to be about to close on the photographer. For the resulting meticulously-balanced image, elemental is the word. A dark ball of energy cracking through the diffuseness of ocean and sky, the surfer asserts his athleticism and his drive for survival. Crouching, keenly watchful, his fingers tensed in chopping formation of defence or attack, Ted Spencer could be the last man on earth.

Bells steps, c. 1975 by John Witzig
Bells steps, c. 1975 by John Witzig  

There are fewer than a hundred people in Bells steps but the composition is similar to that of a Salgado picture of gold-mine workers in Brazil. There’s a lot of tangled hair here and a general feeling of twistiness contributed by the low stems and branches; one-third of the picture is vegetation. Obviously it was hard to get a comfortable seat on the dune – the spectators are perched, slipping uncomfortably down, and it was clearly cold, but as far as the image – which would make an excellent jigsaw puzzle – is concerned, the people are distributed in pleasing clumps around the steps.

Prevelly Park (Geoff Sedovic and Nigel Coates), 1971 by John Witzig
Prevelly Park (Geoff Sedovic and Nigel Coates), 1971 by John Witzig  

Between the scruffy grass in the foreground, and the overarching peppermint branches that create a kind of proscenium, there might be a fire going, though there’s no hint of smoke or flame. The vertical post in the back of the Kombi, and a rock, are at the midpoint of this picture; the diagonal trunks with their rough bark are the strongest element, with the strappy leaves on the plant on the right balancing the whole. The fin on the left edge is the key to what the boys are doing there; looking at the vegetation, you can hear the susurration of the sea, just over a hill. Roving loosely, the eye returns to the dog, sitting side-saddle, and the ashy soles of Sedovic’s feet.

Dogs at Cactus, 1975 by John Witzig
Dogs at Cactus, 1975 by John Witzig  

Between 1967 and 1970 Paul Witzig made The Hot Generation, Evolution and Sea of Joy, documenting the brilliance of, among others, Bob McTavish, Russell Hughes, George Greenough, Nat Young, Ted Spencer and, notably, the young Wayne Lynch. An ensuing project was Rolling Home, an adventure-travel documentary featuring Hawaiian surfer Reno Abellira. That film took Witzig and his partner Marianne to Cactus, south of Penong in South Australia. The crew, including architect Judy Bray, built this house for three dollars and Paul and Marianne settled there in 1975. They made substantial improvements over the course of the next few years, before moving to northern New South Wales, where, in due course, Witzig completed his MA in architecture.

Wayne Lynch at Possum Creek, 1969 by John Witzig
Wayne Lynch at Possum Creek, 1969 by John Witzig  

Idyllic is the word. In a dappled ferny forest we’ve come upon a golden youth who’s been there, enchanted, since time immemorial. We strain to see his face but he doesn’t turn; he doesn’t speak; he’s transfixed by the patterns the thin branch makes as he flicks it on the water. We steal away.

Pandanus scrub, 2014 by Nicholas Harding
Pandanus scrub, 2014 by Nicholas Harding  

Nicholas Harding, born in England, moved to Australia with his family in 1965, when he was eight. They came from a place where the landscape was benign and gentle; there were seasons; it was densely settled and had long been cultivated. His family often went to the beach on the south-east coast of England, around Eastbourne. It was sandy, not shingle, but when the tide went out it was a long walk to get wet. The water was still, palliated by breakwaters. In Bondi, a week or so after the family arrived in Australia, Harding took off his shoes to run across a grassy slope; it was his painful introduction to bindies. Soon, as he shyly haunted bushland and seashore, the boy Harding learned the appropriateness of the term ‘scrub’. In Australia the beach was hot and dangerous, people got caught in rips and drowned – not even the prime minister was safe. For some time, bereft, as he sees it now, of the sense of belonging, the immigrant child found refuge in drawing: a lot of Union Jacks, for a while. Over his ensuing decades in Australia, he’s become aware of drawing and painting to try and make sense of things that are mystifying; to try to find out how things function before he shuffles off this mortal coil. In subject and technique, his huge abraded ink drawings are central to this personal exploration.

Video: John Witzig's Arcadia: a chat in the photography studio (5 minutes 41 seconds)

John Witzig's 'Arcadia'
A chat in the photography studio
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Mark Mohell: Welcome. My name's Mark. I work here at the National Portrait Gallery and today we're talking with John Witzig regarding the development of the 'Arcadia' Exhibition which is going to be here soon. First of all I'd like to start off and to talk about the technique you use to sort of catch the, like Mark Richards. But you've got a unique style which comes across quite a few of the photographs in the exhibition where you're really close to the action. It's just amazing the way you've captured the – the hands and also the facial expressions.

John Witzig:     I'd like to be able to claim some credit for this and it's complete serendipity to tell you the truth. I was not looking through the viewfinder of this camera. It was a little Nikonos underwater camera which had been originally developed by Jacques Cousteau and then Nikon bought it. It had a fixed 35mm lens which everything was sharp as a tack, business you had to get extraordinarily close. I mean Mark Richard in this picture will be literally, not maybe a metre away from me. The technique I developed was you couldn't sit a surfboard because you were too far away, you couldn't even be on a map because basically you were in the breaking zone of the wave. So I just swam with flippers. I got really close. I think it's just a splendid composition. Everything' right about it quite frankly – his hand, the spray, the way the white water curls, just down on the right hand corner just inside the edge of the frame there's a guy paddling out. It's all bloody perfect and I – almost I had nothing to do with it, other than being prepared, getting myself in the right position and then trusting to luck.

What I like about that picture is that it shows very much what it feels like to be out in the water to me, and the Nikonos was brilliant at that. Because it had a wide-angle lens you got the ocean, you got the character of the ocean and then you got the landscape in the background. This is in Western Australia, south-west corner of WA where it's all a National Park. So, we've got a beautiful sort of virgin landscape and the ocean is just – I find the ocean to be an endlessly fascinating subject.

I was the editor of various magazines at the time. I wasn't just a photographer, I – because we were all total amateurs really. So we – we edited the magazines, we designed them, we took the pictures, we wrote the stories, we went and sold the ads and we wrote the ads for heaven's sake as well.

When I was the editor I wanted pictures which told me something about the world that these people – and they were friends of mine who were living in. I think it was just natural – my natural inclination was to photograph my own world to some degree, but also to photograph a wider thing than just what was happening out in the water.

Now they're being looked – looked at through a sort of social documentary prism which is interesting and I can certainly appreciate that and I quite kind of like it. It makes me look at pictures in a different way. And I love – I love the process, literally what we've been going through and looking at pictures, doing proofs, doing proofs on the same – it's not a press, but a printer which is going to print the actual thing. So we know the result we're going to get. That is such a luxury. I've never in my life had that luxury before.

This is me being proud. Sorry, don't want to wreck it.

Mark Mohell: Put that away and just finish up those last couple.

John Witzig:     We got those – those too. Okay. The hero picture.

Mark Mohell: Arcadia.

John Witzig:     Okay well, the – the tones through these areas are absolutely clearly, but I just found this a little bit dead.

Mark Mohell: That's right. It definitely looks muddy through the shadows.

John Witzig:  Yeah.

Mark Mohell: And that definitely has brought it out more.

John Witzig:     Yeah. This particularly – I don't care so much about this extreme edge, but through this area and the two figures is absolutely crucial. So, I'd say that's pretty good.

Mark Mohell: Okay. So John, how have you found the process from going from traditional photographic techniques from when you were actually printing this work and to this exhibition where we're looking at a different scale, we're actually looking at blowing quite a lot of these images up to about two metres?

John Witzig:     I'm still apprehensive, I tell you, even though – you know – you've shown me – you know – strips of what we're going to get. I'm still apprehensive about it, to tell you the truth, but there were a  couple of pictures and this is – this is one example where I have published that, what 300mm – 200mm wide, maybe 150mm wide and now it's going to be, what 900mm wide? A bit more. But, the point is we can look at it on screen, you can show me, we can muck around with it, you can do me a strip print which is going to show me actually what the grain is going to look like, so to me that's been exciting and it also means going back into the archives and just an exercise in nostalgia. It's sort of a contemporary experience in that you're looking at pictures in a different way.

Now, it is a document of my life. It's a document of the lives of the people I hung around with, that I travelled with, that I surfed with, and I'm – quite frankly I'm sort of pleased with it as – as that. I think it's quite a nice document to tell you the truth.

[End of Transcript]