Obituary: “The Surfer” John Severson (1933-2017)
The founder of 'Surfer" magazine passed away earlier this week at age 83. Matt Warshaw chronicles his impact on the sport's media.
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Not only was John Severson the go-to guy for surf logos and trademarks in the early ’60s, he worked for free. Not because he was young and exploitable, but because he desperately needed to fill ad space for The Surfer—the rough little 36-page booklet that started off as a promo piece for his 1960 movie Surf Fever, and was later grandfathered in as the debut issue of Surfer magazine.
Looking back, the creation of the surf-mag trade in the 1960s seems not so much dramatic as inevitable; it filled an obvious and growing void. There was some risk involved—the morbidity rate for magazine startups has always been high. But nothing to compare with, say, dumping every penny of your life savings into an experimental polyurethane surfboard blank foam-blowing mold. Full-house crowds at surf movie screenings up and down the coast had already proven the demand for surf-related entertainment. The small but growing number of mainland commercial boardmakers—almost all of them conveniently located within a half-day’s drive on Highway 101, from San Diego to Santa Barbara—could hopefully provide a magazine-supporting ad-revenue base. Besides, Americans had already shown they were ready to support their favorite niche sports magazines: Ski and Skin Diver magazines had been around for years.
Finally, in a small but tantalizing development, 33-year-old New York regular-footer John Hammond had just begun to sell his own line of surfboards, and was planning the East Coast’s first multi-state surf competition. The big, explosive years of the surf boom were still to come. But by late 1959, John Severson, crouched over a grid of magazine artboards laid across the floor of his Dana Point apartment, must have recognized that the auguries for launching a surf magazine were all coming up favorable.
Severson, without question, was the right man for the job. He’d been surfing for nearly half of his 25 years, and was among the best all-arounders in the sport. Furthermore, he’d been documenting his experience since the beginning, first with his Brownie camera, then with cartoons, woodblock prints, and paintings. He also played trumpet, formed a barbershop quartet, and pitched for his high school baseball team. As fanatic a wave-rider as ever came down the pike, Severson, unlike most of his peers, didn’t let the sport crab the rest of his life.
People gravitated toward Severson; he was good-looking and bright, smiled a lot, and had a sense of humor. Art and teaching, he hoped, would together provide a career, and in the mid-’50s he received a Masters in Art Education from Long Beach State. Most of his paintings were set on the beach. His surfers were elongated, wavy-limbed, and often featureless, and their boards looked like bent daggers. Sometimes the ocean and sky were faithfully rendered in the usual surf-world blues, greens, and whites, but just as often Severson filled the spaces in shifting fields of coral, lemon yellow, or lavender. “Seal Beach Locals,” his 1956 semi-abstract oil—in which three surfers watch another surfer bomb down a jagged wave, under a bruised red-orange Cezanne sky—is sometimes identified as surf culture’s original work of art.
“In this crowded world the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”
Severson taught for one semester, then was drafted into the army. Arriving at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks in 1957, he worked as a military draftsman, hawked three-dollar surf-scene ink drawings to Waikiki tourists on weekends, and most afternoons—as the ranking member of the newly-formed Army Surf Team—was given permission to surf. After sending home for his Keystone 16mm movie camera, Severson began filming the local surf action. In the winter of 1958 he edited the Hawaiian footage together with some older rolls shot in California, added some hand-lettered titles, and called the resulting film Surf. The movie cleared just enough money for Severson to buy a new Bolex camera, and he immediately began working on a follow-up movie: Surf Safari came out in 1959, not long after Severson completed his army tour and returned to the mainland. By that time, surf moviemaking could almost be described as a career choice. Bud Browne, the genre’s deacon-faced veteran, had made a handful of films since 1953; by the late 1950s, he had been joined by Greg Noll, Bruce Brown, and Severson.
As Severson barnstormed Surf Safari along the Southern California coast, he laid out stacks of 8×10 “frame grab” glossy photos on the ticket table, priced them a buck each, and was amazed at how many sold. Browne and the rest were also flogging 8×10 action shots from their own movies, though, so nobody had a marketing advantage there. Same with the handbills. Severson’s illustrated two-color notices were lively single-panel cartoon surf-dramas, but they had to share space on lightpoles and store windows with handbills posted by other filmmakers. (All were stolen nearly as fast as they were posted; further evidence of the surfer’s unsatisfied appetite for media.)
Thinking ahead to his next movie, Severson hit upon the idea of a promo booklet. He figured it would be a better value for the customer than 8×10 photos, and it could give Surf Fever a PR edge over the competition. Publishing wasn’t a total mystery to Severson—ten years earlier he’d written for the school paper and been on the yearbook committee. Returning to Hawaii for the winter of 1959-60, he brought a 35mm still camera, as well as his Bolex; on the beach that season, he often set both up, side-by-side, and alternated between them.
Surf Fever came together easily in the winter and early spring of 1960. The booklet was harder. Severson was still thinking of it in terms of a promo item, but as he penciled out a table of contents and started messing with photo arrangements, it began to take on a life of its own. He chose The Surfer as the title from a list of dozens jotted down in a long vertical column in one of his sketchbooks, because the booklet itself was “meant to be a surfer . . . on its own ride.”
The Surfer wound up looking like a scruffy but earnest art school project, beginning with its horizontal format, grainy cover shot, and hand-lettered logotype. Doodled surf figures glide around the margins. Captions are often set vertically. Lots of real estate on any give page is left unprinted and white. Severson had always liked Doc Ball’s 1946 book California Surfriders, and he’d intended to make The Surfer a similar all-photo project. It almost came out that way. Most of the features are nothing more than photo groupings with explanatory titles—“Toes on Nose,” “Rincon,” “Waimea Bay”—and brief captions. No competition reports. No editorials, travel stories, interviews, or equipment features. Severson did add a short fiction piece and a “Surfing for Beginners” article, and the text columns in these two features add just enough ballast to keep The Surfer from floating away. Surf Fever, ostensibly the whole point of The Surfer, has no presence at all except as a back-cover ad—and even there it’s shoved over to make room for one last Severson drawing.
In terms of design, the magazine looks pretty raw, even by that day’s standard. Opposing pages often don’t fit together. In a Southern California surf break map, it isn’t entirely clear which part is land and which is ocean. Half the photos are blurry—a hard thing to overlook, especially since most of the Ball images from California Surfriders, published fifteen years earlier, are razor sharp. But like the surf films themselves, none of this really mattered. The Surfer was friendly, authentic, and handcrafted. Anything more sophisticated would have been out of synch with what was happening on the beaches, in the surf shops, and at the high school auditoriums where Surf Fever was playing. The sport was still barely commercialized. Severson managed to sell twelve ads for his booklet, to Hobie and Velzy and the rest, but only because he agreed to do much of the ad designing at no extra charge.
Finally, Severson brought the project to a close on an unexpectedly graceful note. A photograph on the next-to-last page shows a lone surfer paddling out toward an empty wave, with the breaking crest throwing up a helix of spray. Two lines of Severson-composed type are set in the lower righthand corner: “In this crowded world the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”
The Surfer went to press just before Easter in 1960. Still not quite sure if he’d created a magazine, a promo piece, or a book—the cover was initially going to be hardbound, but a cardboard stock was switched in at the last minute—Severson in the end ran a contents page subtitle describing The Surfer as his “First Annual Surf Photo Book.” His idea was that he’d follow up with a second edition in 1961 to go with next year’s surf film.
Severson was in the black, and his magazine, by year’s end, was a surf institution in the making.
Severson printed ten thousand copies of The Surfer at a total cost of $3,000; the per-unit wholesale cost was $1.00, and each issue retailed for $2.00—pricey for something not too far removed from a vanity project. Severson and his brother loaded the magazines from the printer’s dock into John’s VW van and immediately began hand-delivering them to bookstores and surf shops—where copies were snapped up like kibble by gremmies who’d somehow gotten the early word and were actually lined up and waiting.
Sales peaked early, though. Five-thousand copies were circulating by the end of September. Another five thousand were boxed up and gathering dust in Severson’s garage. Profit from the enterprise was small, but it was enough to convince Severson to scrap the idea of a follow-up annual and to instead publish a quarterly magazine.
It should be noted that Surfer’s claim to being the original surf periodical is technically untrue. Three issues of Orange County-based Reef magazine, and four issues of a monthly broadsheet called Surfing, were published in 1960 before Severson decided to parlay The Surfer into a magazine. Way back there, we find The Surf: A Journal of Sport and Pastime, a one-penny Australian tabloid published in 1917 and 1918 and dedicated to “the surfer . . . a gay-hearted, carefree child of Nature.”
Severson had been in full bohemian mode while producing The Surfer; with The Surfer Quarterly—later renamed Surfer—the goal was commercial success. He changed the format from horizontal to vertical—The Surfer had disappeared on magazine racks behind taller publications—designed a new machine-set logotype, and expanded editorial content to include a standard mix of articles, columns, photo features, letters, editorials, and competition coverage. He hired staff. He created discount subscription offers and mailed rate cards to potential advertisers. The new cover price was 75¢—still pretty steep, considering Life cost just 20¢. Severson printed five thousand copies of the debut issue of The Surfer Quarterly, and the entire run was gone before the next issue hit the stands. Severson was in the black, and his magazine, by year’s end, was a surf institution in the making.
When the 1960s surf boom arrived, Severson was the primary media gatekeeper between trade interests and surfers at large, and he went a long way toward making the transition less crass, if not less abrupt. Not that he was a beacon of purity. Severson in fact was a nimble, tactical, and occasionally fierce businessman. No action was required on his part to eliminate Surfing Illustrated and Petersen’s Surfing—a pair of clumsy rivals destined to fail—but a Santa Monica-published monthly called Surf Guide, which debuted in 1963, brought out the iron fist. Surf Guide was handsome and forward-thinking. It was “the most interesting of all the other magazines,” Severson recalled. “Really strong.” Enough so that when Surf Guide editor Bill Cleary ran a satire piece in late 1964 poking gentle fun of Surfer and its charismatic owner-publisher, Severson hit back with a million-dollar libel suit. Surf Guide folded two months later. Severson, with the keenest eye for talent in the business, immediately hired Cleary as his new associate editor.
But work never consumed Severson, or at least not in the early going. He kept up as an artist: the cartoon figures that livened up the first issue of The Surfer were deployed for another two years, and his surf movie posters were museum-grade models of composition. “Surf Bebop,” a semi-abstract painting of two surfers lounging on the beach—Severson’s finest work as a painter—was used as a Surfer cover and honored by Communication Arts magazine as one of the best cover illustrations of 1963.
It was an impressive balancing act. There were checks to deposit, meetings to chair, advertisers to court, and Severson did all that. There were also waves to discover and ride, and a drive to present the whole experience to his audience not only through journalism but art. Severson did that, too. Yes, he wanted readers to go out and buy the products advertised on the magazine’s pages. He also wanted to remind them, in each issue, that what they were doing was beautiful and unique, that it was still a privilege and a calling for the surfer to seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.