A.R. Gurrey Jr.

Gurreyʻs Ltd. Billboard circa 1912

A. R. Gurrey, Jr.

By Joel T. Smith
with Sandra Kimberley Hall

   Alfred Richard Gurrey, Jr. was born in Kansas on December 21, 1874. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and worked as a civil engineer in the San Francisco Bay area for seven years. Right at the turn of the 20th Century he relocated to Hawaii, joining his parents who had moved to Honolulu in 1899. 

Anahola by A. R. Gurrey Sr.

  Gurrey’s father, Alfred Sr., was a fascinating character. He was the principal insurance adjuster for the Island chain, drafting the first fire ratings and maps for the city of Honolulu. He also served as the Secretary of the Board of Underwriters for the entire Territory of Hawaii. This was a highly important and influential position; but while insurance was A.R. Sr.’s business it was not his passion. His real love was art.

Makaweli, Kauai by A. R. Gurrey Sr. 
(Kauai Museum Collection)
  The younger Gurrey had grown up in a household surrounded by paintings and sculptures. A.R. Sr. was an accomplished artist who, after retiring from the insurance business, achieved significant fame for his oil paintings, notably seascapes.  Today his works command hefty prices from museums, galleries and collectors. With such a gifted father it was perhaps inevitable that Gurrey would be drawn to the world of art.  

   In Hawaiʻi Gurrey started working as a surveyor for the Honolulu Rapid Transit Company, but this didn’t last long. He soon quit this job and left engineering completely. He became a gallerist, establishing “Gurrey’s Ltd. - Fine and Oriental Art” in 1903.

Gurrey Price Sticker

   This eclectic gallery listed itself as offering: “art, books, pictures & framing, oriental goods, and photographic development and printing.”  It swiftly became the focal point of Hawaii’s burgeoning art scene; a salon and meeting place for artists old and new as well as a dealership.  Gurrey was particularly well regarded for his support of local talent.  He not only showcased their work, but also offered jobs, meals, and the occasional rent check when times were hard. Among the many employees he helped over the years was famed poet, author & artist Don Blanding.  Blanding assembled picture frames at Gurrey Ltd., and was forever thankful for the assistance Gurrey gave him.

From all the reminiscences and articles about A.R. Gurrey, Jr. a picture emerges of a man with a technical bent, an artistic sensibility and a caring heart.  But there was one other aspect to Gurrey that was critical to his photographic work. 

He was an avid surfer.

Note embossed Gurrey stamp at bottom left, reads "Gurrey - Honolulu".

The Father of Surf Photography

The Gurreyʻs 1903
From "Photographers of Old Hawaii"
 By 1910 photography had gone through monumental technological advancement over the last few decades. With George Eastman's invention of film and the introduction of small hand held "Kodak" cameras with preloaded film, photography was for the first time available to the masses.  Cameras had become a standard item for the visiting tourist at Waikiki.
 The first documentable photos of he'e nalu where done on Niʻihau by Dr. Henry C. Bolton in 1890. Over the next few decades Hawaiian photographers J. J. Williams, Frank Davey, Ray Jerome Baker and Edward P. Irwin documented the revival of the sport. They were joined by motion picture crews from Thomas Edison and the French Pathé Frères company. Their images are valuable from an historical standpoint, but the real breakthrough was about to occur.

 There was one aspect of Gurrey that separated him from his contemporaries -- he was an avid surfer.

   Gurrey was a member of the Hui Nalu, the surfing club founded by Duke Kahanamoku and his friends. It was a proud bastion of Native Hawaiians and hapa-haoles who held meetings under the Moana Hotelʻs hau tree. It says much about Gurrey that he chose the Hui as his club, for with his family connections he could well have joined the more socially prestigious Outrigger.

   Gurrey took more photos of duke surfing than any other beachboy, when Duke was still unknown.. Gurreyʻs photographs are the earliest known photos of Duke surfing, taken of the relatively unknown athlete before his first Olympics in 1912. Indeed, A.R., Jr.’s most famous photo is the soaring Duke executing a swan dive from the 100 foot mast of a sailboat (Centerfold). Gurrey also snapped the classic shot of Duke posed with his surfboard at Waikiki. (Overleaf) The Hawaii Promotion Committee turned this photo into a postcard and sold it to raise money for Duke’s first Olympics. But the key here is that Gurrey knew firsthand what surfers and surfing were all about. His intimate involvement gave him an understanding of the sport beyond any cameraman of his era, and his practical experience with the U.S. Navy contract gave him confidence filming at sea and aboard water craft.

   Gurrey realized that to accurately portray surfing he had to get up close and personal with the wave riders themselves – and this is what ultimately distinguishes his work. Virtually all of his surfing photos are “water shots.”

  From the angles used, the proximity to his subjects, and the fact that the moving elements are sharply in focus, it is apparent that Gurrey ventured into the surf itself – most likely taking the photos from a canoe or boat racing alongside the surf riders rather than just going out to the end of the Moana Pier. Given the quality of his results this was clearly a breakthrough for surf photography.

  The action shots in “The Surf Riders of Hawaii” are all the more remarkable when one considers the state of camera technology circa 1910. With shutter speeds at most of 1/100th of a second and the speed of film DIN/ASAs were similarly “slow” – about 32.

  Although we cannot be certain what equipment Gurrey used, it would invariably be an Ansco product as he was their official agent and dealer in Hawaii. Several of their versatile “Folding” cameras utilized roll film that could be loaded in daylight and were small enough to handle (and protect) in a shaky canoe.

   Regardless of the equipment he chose, the results are what matters, and here Gurrey excelled. His rare blend of technical prowess, aesthetic appreciation and “wave knowledge” lifted his work above the others and set the standards of surf photography for years to come. 

A.R. Gurrey, Jr. essentially pioneered surf photography as we know it today.

The Book

“The Surf Riders of Hawaii” combines stunning photographs with romantic poetry from Lord Byron and Gurrey’s own descriptive prose. The photos are all technically proficient - beautifully composed and fastidiously rendered. Each shot depicts a surfer or surfers riding the waves at Waikiki. From the standpoint of surfing history these images are invaluable.  They provide clear documentation of the sport just as it was emerging from a century long period of decline. But they are much more than a just a celluloid chronicle. The eight (8) photos that comprise each of these books actually transcend history through their artistry. A.R. Gurrey managed to impart the intangible with his images; presenting viewers with the true spirit, splendor and visceral joy of wave riding.  

   For the first time the essence of the surfing experience was displayed on film. 

   This was a remarkable achievement, particularly given the technical limitations of the time. Gurrey’s photos are unquestionably the finest surf images of the era – and still a thing of rare beauty today.

   No one knows how many books were originally produced, or, indeed, exactly when they were produced. Each was hand assembled by the author/photographer some time between 1910 and 1914. Gurrey mounted original photographic prints directly onto heavy paper stock, and then bound the pages together with a colorful cord. This was painstaking work, commanding a great deal of personal attention. His obvious goal was to make every book special – an item precious unto itself. We have been able to verify two “editions” with different paper stock and some slight variation in the selection of photos mounted. This helps make each copy of this book somewhat unique. 

   “The Surf Riders of Hawaii” today holds a revered place in the world of surfing. It is the first book dedicated to the sport and unquestionably a work of art. At the time of this writing only eight (8) copies of the book are known to be in existence. But the importance of this book is not in its scarcity or even the personalized touch of its manufacture.  It is the wonderful content.  

The Legacy

   A.R. Gurrey achieved some contemporary renown for his work. Many of the photos used in “The Surf Riders of Hawaii” appeared in other publications. In fact, the entire book was reprinted in the August 1915 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine, which at the time was one of America’s most popular children’s monthlies. But it was the Honolulu based Mid Pacific Magazine that most frequently displayed Gurrey’s images.  Both A.R. and his wife Caroline Haskins were regular contributors to this fine journal in its early years. 

   Besides his surfing pictures, Gurrey provided Mid Pacific with a number of beautiful landscapes and island vistas. His photographs are all exterior shots. Caroline’s work was quite different. It consisted exclusively of studio based portraits, some of which are absolutely exquisite. Indeed, Caroline’s photo exhibits regularly traveled to the mainland and brought her national awards and recognition. 

"The Boy and the Lobster"
by Caroline Gurrey
   Caroline’s fame continued to grow and her photo studio thrived, but for some reason Gurrey seemed to stop taking photographs shortly after the publication of “Surf Riders.” He concentrated on his art gallery, but that tale does not have a happy ending.  Gurrey’s Ltd. struggled financially for many years and finally closed its doors in 1923. After a year of unemployment Gurrey glumly reverted to his father’s business, taking a job as an insurance surveyor. The rumor at the time was that Caroline was actually supporting the family.  During this unhappy period the Gurrey home suffered both a fire and a flood.  This was a true disaster. It is believed that all of Gurrey’s original negatives were lost. Perhaps this was the final straw in a succession of dream shattering events.  Gurrey died in 1928, at the untimely age of 53.

    A.R. Gurrey, Jr. became a forgotten man soon after that.  People often confused him with his father, who outlived him by almost two decades. And his wife Caroline became so well known that she was commonly given credit for the fine photographs her husband produced. His name and work are virtually unknown to the modern surfing and photographic communities. Outside of a few collectors most of his pictures have not been seen for almost 100 years.  But his artistry speaks for itself. A.R. Gurrey can justly be considered the first true surf photographer – in the vanguard of what is now a key component of the international surfing culture and industry.
He is a man who fully deserves the recognition which is at last coming his way.

And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast, to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward; from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers, - they come to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea.
Made them a terror, t'was a pleasing fear;
For I was as it, were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane,
As I do here.

From "Childe Harold"
By Lord Byron.

Published surfing works of A. R. Gurrey Jr.

The Surf Riders of Hawaii. (Honolulu, HI. circa 1911-1915)

Magazine Articles:
Mid Pacific Magazine:
vol. 1 no. 1: Jan. 1911 Cover shot of Duke (shown on home page) Frontpiece: Photo of Duke with Charlie Little or Marston Campbell on his shoulders. Main article "Riding the Surfboard" by Duke Kahanamoku.
vol. 1 no. 2: Feb. 1911. 13 photos accompany second part of Duke Kahanamokuʻs article "Riding the Surfboard"
vol. 1 no. 3: March 1911. Notes A. R. Gurrey Jr. has "taken the best surfing picture yet made."
vol. 2 no. 2: Aug 1911. Frontpiece: "Childe Harold" with Duke photo
vol. 4 no. 5: Dec 1912. Photo of Duke as used in Version B

Outing Magazine April 1914. "Riding the Surf at Waikiki" by George Marvin, 12 photos.

St. Nicholas Magazine Aug. 1915. The Surf Riders of Hawaii
10 photos, with same text and poem as books

National Geographic Magazine 1919. "Riding the Surf at Honolulu, Hawaii." 2 photos, one of Duke.