The Origins of Surfing Photography
A century ago Waikiki Beach was a small resort with one major hotel, The Moana (EST: 1901). A sleepy beach just a short trolley ride from the booming city of Honolulu.
Some twenty years before he'e nalu (Surf sliding) had nearly disappeared from the Hawaiian shores because of the near complete eradication of the Hawaiian people due to diseases and cultural changes. Yet here on this beach surfing was reborn, the perfect beach for the solid wood surfboards of the era. As Duke Paoa Kahanamoku noted in the first issue of Mid-Pacific Magazine (1911) "Perhaps the ideal stretch in all the world is at Waikiki beach, near Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Here centuries ago was born the sport of running foot races upon the crests of the billows, and here bronze skinned men and women vie today with the white man for honors in aquatic sports once exclusively Hawai‘ian.”
The first documented photographs of surfing where taken by Dr. Henry C. Bolton in 1890, while visiting the island of Ni‘ihau. Dr Bolton who had traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian islands reported, “Here I witnessed, the sport of surf-riding, once so universally popular, and now but little seen." It is notable that Dr. Bolton took these images with glass plates and a very large and cumbersome camera.
True surfing photography was made possible by the inventions of George Eastman, who in 1885 developed dry gel on paper, or film, which would replace the cumbersome and dangerous to prepare photographic glass plates. Then in 1900, he introduced the inexpensive Brownie Camera. This allowed photography to reach the masses, with an affordable and simple process that left the complex parts and processes to others. Ads promised, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Photography was now able to capture the action of surf riding from the beach or even a canoe.
The early photographers of Hawaiʻi found surfing an appealing subject and commonly posed surfers and their surfboards on the beach. This was done by photographer J. J. Williams in circa 1892 (Left). An unknown photographer captured the first standing surfing action in the only known real-photo card which dates from the "undivided back" postcard era from 1901 to 1907 (Photo top left, Below) Joining J. J. Williams in recording the Waikiki surf riders where such noted photographers as Frank Davey; Alexander Hume Ford; Ray Jerome Baker; Edward P. Irwin; Theodore Severin; Alonzo Gartley and hundreds of excited tourist with their Kodak cameras. Meanwhile movie crews from Thomas Edison’s movie company filmed the action along with cinematographer M. Bouvillain, of Pathé Frères of France.
Shortly thereafter a young a surf riding photographer named Alfred R. Gurrey Jr., produced the first book dedicated to surfing. He captured some of the most striking images ever done of the “Sport of Kings.”
Surfing Heratige Foundation offers the Gurrey Familyʻs edition of "The Surf Riders of Hawaii"
Text & Photos from “Surfing in Hawaii, 1778-1930” by Timothy T. De La Vega