Surfer, multifaceted artist, editor and publisher, photographer and filmmaker: being all of this would be amazing for everyone. What if I told you John Stevenson even made this all revolve around surf, becoming a major pioneer in surfing media?
Severson was born in 1933 in Los Angeles and grew up in Pasadena. It was only after his family moved to San Clemente (Orange County) that he first approached surfing, at age 13. He received both a B.A. (1955) and a M.A. (1956) in art education. His intuition was to join art and surf together, creating a whole new category for all visual media.
Movies (and books)
Severson’s first movie, “Surf”, came out in 1956, while he was in Honolulu for his military service. Surf Safari (1959), Surf Fever (1960), our all-time favourite Big Wednesday (1961), Going my wave (1962), Angry Sea (1963) and Surf Classics (1964) followed. His last movie was Pacific Vibrations in 1970, considered his most serious one.
He also published two books: “Modern surfing around the world (1964), Great Surfing (1967).
Art & “The surfer”
Severson’s art, consisting of painting, sketches, watercolours, drawing and prints, are considered the first example of surf art. Posters from his movies were amazing and are nowadays regarded as rare and precious memorabilia for all surf enthusiasts. He was already selling his art while still completing his Master’s degree: today, his art is displayed and sold in galleries all around the world. In 2003, a retrospective of his early works was published.
To promote “Surf Fever”, in 1960 he published 5000 self-made copies of a 36-page magazine called “The Surfer”. It consisted of sketches, articles (both fiction and technical, with advices for beginners), a map of Southern California surf breaks, and b/w photography. Fun fact: the issue format was horizontal.
The following year, he changed its name to “Surfer Quarterly” and published four new successful issues. Thanks to his various talents, Severson was able to do all by himself: not only editing but also writing and providing all of the pictures (photos, drawing and art) included in the magazine. No wonder his works were later published by many other magazines like Communication Arts, Life, Sports Illustrated, Paris Match, German Stern. Later, he hired some of the soon-to-be surf media superstars: photographers, cartoonists, writers and graphic designers such ad Mike Salisbury, John Van Hamersveld, Drew Kampion, Rick Griffin, Ron Stoner, Art Brewer, Steve Pezman and Jeff Divine.
In 1971 Severson sold “Surfer”, turning to full-time painting and surfing.
“The Surfer” literally allowed the world to see and approach the surfing world without actually surfing. It made it visible, creating a media subject that didn’t exist before. Surfing photography, advertising and even professional surfing do owe “The Surfer” their birth.
You can find Severson both in the International Surfing Hall of Fame and on the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. Surf Magazine inserted him in the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century” list in 1999 and gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011; both LIFE and the Los Angeles Times published long articles about his life and career.
“Before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’—at least not in the way we understand it today.” (Sam George, journalist, 1999)