Obituaries

John Severson, 83, surfer, illustrator of waves’ allure

NEW YORK — John Severson, a pioneer of modern surf culture who founded Surfer magazine in 1962 and created paintings, films, and photographs depicting the surfing lifestyle, died Friday at his home outside Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He was 83.

His wife, Louise, said he had leukemia.

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Surfing was a niche sport in the United States when Mr. Severson, having surfed on a redwood board in his native Southern California as a teenager, set out to portray its essence as a counter to the 1959 Hollywood film “Gidget” (a forerunner of the 1960s beach party films with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello) and the early music of the Beach Boys, which he regarded as a “cheap, honky look at surfing.”

He believed that the popular portrayal of surfing spawned an image that led to municipal restrictions on serious wave riders.

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“The Gidget-inspired kids wanted to go surfing, or at least be a part of this underground culture,” Mr. Severson recalled in his 2014 book, “John Severson’s SURF.”

“Their role models were Hollywood stereotypes, and the sport quickly picked up a bad name. Wannabes came into the sport as rebels, pranksters, vandals, and thieves, wearing Nazi imagery — helmets and iron crosses. Surfers hated those Hollywood surf films, and I could see that Surfer could create a truer image of the sport.”

Drew Kampion, editor of Surfer magazine from 1968-1972, said in an interview Saturday that he viewed Mr. Severson, who preceded him as its editor, as “the first to treat surfing as a worthy subject matter for fine art.”

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Surf journalist Sam George wrote in 1999, “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.”

Mr. Severson (pronounced SEA-ver-son) likened the surfing experience to “a beautiful sensation of dance with the added dimension of being in nature.”

“There’s this whole force of moving water, and as you ride, you harness this water,” he told the contemporary culture magazine 032c in a 2014 interview. “Then, as your abilities increase, you can go farther and deeper into the wave, and into more radical positions — like off the top, off the bottom — and there are these weightless sensations. It’s another dimension.”

Surfer, the first major magazine devoted to wave riding, began as an annual publication, then became a quarterly and finally a monthly. “As long as I had enough money to make the next issue and pay the little staff I had, I was pretty stoked,” Mr. Severson told The New York Times in 2014.

The magazine thrived, and by the early 1970s he had about 100,000 readers and plentiful advertising. But his publishing obligations were becoming excessively consuming, and he was confronted by restrictions on his favorite surfing spot.

President Richard M. Nixon had bought an estate alongside Mr. Severson’s home in San Clemente, Calif., looking out on the popular Cotton’s Point surf break. The Secret Service, citing security concerns, sought to close public access there when Nixon was visiting. Mr. Severson spoke with top White House aides to discuss a compromise on surfing hours but remained discouraged at having to battle for unfettered access.

He sold Surfer magazine in the early 1970s for an undisclosed amount, then returned to Hawaii to pursue his artwork, to ride big waves, and to relax with his family.

His films included “Surf,” “Surf Safari,” “Surf Fever” and perhaps most notably “Pacific Vibrations.” The posters he designed for them became collectors’ items.

Mr. Severson’s “Surf BeBop,” a semiabstract painting of surfers lounging on a beach, which appeared on a 1963 cover of Surfer, was cited by Communication Arts magazine as the most outstanding cover painting of the year.

With the passing of decades, Mr. Severson lamented the increased commercialization of surfing and especially its marketing to the wealthy.

“I always felt like surfing belonged to everyone,” he told The Times in 2014, “not the guy with the most money.”

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