Seminal surf world writer, editor, publisher, photographer, filmmaker, and artist from San Clemente, California; best known as the founder in 1960 of Surfer magazine. "Before John Severson," surf writer Drew Kampion wrote in 1999, "there was no 'surf media,' no 'surf industry' and no 'surf culture'—at least not in the way we understand it today."
Severson was born (1933) in Los Angeles, the son of a gas station owner, raised in North Fair Oaks and Pasadena, and began surfing at age 13, after his family moved to the Orange County beach town of San Clemente. He received a B.A. in art education from Chico State College in 1955 and an M.A. in art education from Long Beach State College in 1956; Severson's paintings and sketches from this time have been called the original surf art.
After being drafted by the army in 1956, Severson was stationed in Honolulu and assigned to the army surfing team. Surf, his debut film, came out in 1958, while he was still in the military. Surf Safari followed in 1959, after he returned to California; Surf Fever came out in 1960. Severson was among the first group of surf moviemakers, along with Bruce Brown, Greg Noll, and genre originator Bud Browne; with the exception of Surf, Severson barnstormed his films up and down the coast from Santa Cruz to San Diego. His movies were similar to the others—plot-free, colorful, filled with lots of wave-riding action and a few short comedy routines—but his dramatic pen-and-ink handbills and posters were spectacular and unique.
In the summer of 1960, as a promotional piece for Surf Fever, Severson put together a 36-page horizontally formatted magazine, made up of black-and-white photos, semi-abstract cartoon sketches, a short fiction article, a map of Southern California surf breaks, and a how-to article for beginning surfers. He called it The Surfer, and it sold 5,000 copies.
Severson published four editions of what he now called the Surfer Quarterly in 1961, and the magazine grew steadily from issue to issue. It was at first a one-man show, with Severson doing all the editing and much of the writing, photography, and design work; he later hired a number of people who went on to become surf media icons, including cartoonist Rick Griffin; photographers Ron Stoner, Jeff Divine, and Art Brewer; writer-editors Drew Kampion and Steve Pezman; and graphic designers John Van Hamersveld and Mike Salisbury.
Severson continued to produce surf movies, including Big Wednesday (1961), Going My Wave (1962), Angry Sea (1963), and Surf Classics (1964). He also competed in surf contests (in 1961 he placed fifth in the West Coast Surfing Championships and won the Peru International), and became a surfing spokesman to the media at large (as the subject or author of feature articles in the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Paris Match). Doubleday publishers in New York during this time produced two Severson books: Modern Surfing Around the World (1964) and Great Surfing (1967).
Severson guided Surfer through the social and economic whirlpools of the late '60s, and made one final surf movie, 1970's beautiful but overly serious Pacific Vibrations. He sold Surfer in 1971 and moved with his wife and two daughters to Maui, and for the most part returned to painting, sketching, and surfing. Severson's art would eventually be sold in galleries in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
Severson was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991 and to the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1995. In 1997 he was given the Waterman Achievement Award by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, and was profiled in 50 Years of Surfing on Film, an Opper Films documentary series. He was ranked sixth in Surfer magazine's 1999 list of the "25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century."
Surf Fever, a 240-page hardcover retrospective of Severson's early work, was published in 2003. The Los Angeles Times ran a front page story on Severson and his importance to surf art in 2006. Various Severson art pieces have been used on the cover of Surfer magazine (in 1963, 1969, and 1979), The Surfer's Journal (1993), and Longboard magazine (2000 and 2001).
Severson received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Surfer Magazine Poll. He continued to surf up until age 80.
In 2017, Severson died of leukemia. He was 83.