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In Conversation With James Newitt | Art Director At Surfer Magazine

Since its founding in 1959 by surfer, artist and filmmaker John Seversen, SURFER magazine has had a long tradition of breaking new ground. Cover shots that stop you dead in your tracks, provocative art and rich narratives that fill you full of wonder, it's a staple here in the workshop.

James Newitt has been the art director at SURFER mag since 2014. He grew up in south Devon sharing the line-up with a tight knit crew, on the best and worst of days. An aspiring artist who was as creative in the water as he was on dry land. He's managed to weave the two things he loves - surfing and art, into a means of earning a living at one of the worlds finest surf magazines.

We caught him in between deadlines and asked him a few questions, legendary photographer Todd Glaser snapped a few photos, and we even got a look behind the scenes at SURFER HQ and a glimpse inside the archive.

Tell us more about your role at SURFER?

I am the Art Director, but my role encompasses a lot more than just laying out the magazine. We’re a small team so we all contribute editorial ideas irrespective of our role or rank, if ya like. I oversee and produce all the SURFER creative, or as much as I can, I should say. I’m pretty much a one-man art department with a lot to juggle but I like the business. Over time I’ve learnt to work smarter, not necessarily harder.

Tell us about the SURFER archive?

The photo archive is a relic of the magazine. Before computers, in the days of cut and paste, photos were traditionally printed in the dark room before being placed into a layout to make the printing plates. Any unused photos or duplicates where then filed away into various categories by location, surfer, or other.

Over the years thousands accumulated, though when the technology moved on the printed archive ceased as CD’s and hard drives took over, but it captured 20 or so years from 1960 to the early 80s in hard print.

Working at SURFER the history and heritage of the publication is always apparent; its the world’s first surf culture magazine, founded in 1959. When I discovered the archive I couldn’t believe it! There are original negatives and reproductions still coated in hot wax adhesive, contact sheets with shots circled in crayon. Some of the most iconic images in surfing history are there alongside real oddities, bizarre stuff that never made the printed page. Whenever I get a moment I love having a root through it all, its endlessly fascinating to me.

How did you end up in California?

Sometimes I wonder! My misses is from Santa Cruz, we met in Byron Bay, Australia where we both lived for a few years before eventually marrying and moving to America. The culture here is very close to Britain, but there are profound differences that can make you feel a long way from home.

What does your work day usually look like?

It depends on where we are in the production cycle — we’re a monthly publication, which can be grueling at times. If we’re on deadline then I’ll have my head in work all day and often into the evening. But thankfully, following a deadline is always a period of downtime, where you can catch up to yourself. It's also company policy to down tools and surf when the conditions are right, something John Severson put in place when he founded the magazine. Anytime I find myself in the water on a work day I feel very lucky indeed.

What drives you on a daily basis?

Honestly, the subject of surfing is infinitely interesting to me. There are definitely times when you long to work on something other than surf, but for the most part, stories are continually breaking, events happening, people stopping by, swells arriving somewhere, you could say there is never a dull moment.

I don’t take it for granted that I’m able to combine my two great passions in life — surfing and art — so in that sense my passion is what drives me daily. I don’t see there's much of a divide between work and leisure at the moment, which feels good. But I would also say my family is what ultimately motivates me each day — often literally, it's the kids that get me out of bed!

What did you want to be when you were younger?

I wanted to be a painter, but I was terrible. To become a professional artist is a long, hard road and I don’t think I was destined to go far. But I do think the same principles of composition, line, color apply to the work I do today, so I kinda do the same thing now, albeit in a different form.

Any idols?

I don’t know as I idolize anyone per se, I’ve met enough of my heroes to know we are all only human; all flawed in some way. And actually that's probably the quality I admire most; people who are authentic to themselves, genuine, and humble.

If you could recommend one book, what would it be and why?

It would have to be,"The Art of Looking Sideways” by Alan Fletcher: a masterful British designer, founding member of the design group Pentagram, and Creative Director at Phaidon Press, among other things.

The book is an inexhaustible source (1000-odd pages!) of ideas and reflections on the interplay between words and image, which is really the essence of graphic design. He was a self described “visual jackdaw” obsessively collecting things and thoughts, such a brilliant mind and original thinker. I don’t think you could ever “finish” this book, every time I pick it up I find something new in it.

What’s next for you man?

Lots of good stuff to come at the magazine this year, but beyond that who knows, I like not knowing whats coming, in the same way the work I’m doing is always changing, never the same, surfing will never get old to me.

All Photos - Todd Glaser

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