Story by Stu Dawrs
There’s an old photograph of Duke Kahanamoku surfing; perhaps you have seen it. He is in his early 20s, standing tall, riding a wave off Waikiki. He’s bare-chested, wearing only a pair of shorts rather than the modest, singlet-style suits popular in the day. Unlike most photos of this place and time, there is no iconic Diamond Head backdrop—in fact, there is no land at all: nothing but a surfer, the surfer, alone on a wave. This is Duke in his prime, circa 1910, not long before he won his first Olympic medals, a gold and silver at Stockholm in 1912. Also not long before he famously helped to popularize surfing worldwide during trips to Southern California in 1912 and Australia in 1914.
Unless you’re a certain breed of historian— one with a surfboard or two stashed in the rafters—you probably haven’t heard of the man who shot this image. Alfred Richard Gurrey Jr. was not nearly as prolific as some of his Island contemporaries, like the photographer Ray Jerome Baker, businessman/photographer Alonzo Gartley or even Gurrey’s wife Caroline, whose portraiture is at the Smithsonian.
A.R. Gurrey is also not as well known as other “civic leaders” of his day, for instance Alexander Hume Ford, a founder of the Outrigger Canoe Club, publisher of The Mid-Pacific Magazine and ardent lover/promoter of surfing. It was Ford who, in a fit of Hawai‘i boosterism, famously gave Jack London a surfing lesson in 1907. That resulted first in a near-death sunburn and then in a glowing account by London in which he likens surfers to the Roman god Mercury and calls surfing “a royal sport for the natural kings of the earth.”
But in his day Gurrey was a respected artist and Honolulu businessman who like Ford holds a special place in the history of surfing: He is generally regarded as among the first, if not the first, photographers to shoot surfing from the water. More than this, his photographic eye is clearly that of a man who loves his subject. That picture of Duke: It was taken before Duke became a worldwide sensation, at a time when Hawai‘i tourism was still relatively new. The Moana Hotel had opened its doors in 1901; the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee (precursor to what’s now the Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau) formed in 1903. Gurrey, like Ford and the rest of the Honolulu business community, was keen to market Hawai‘i, and the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee used some of Gurrey’s photos to do that. But one doesn’t get the sense that this was Gurrey’s primary motive as a photographer: He wasn’t out to capture an image of a celebrity, nor did he seem concerned with getting scenic landmarks that would make his images more recognizable—and potentially more marketable — in the frame. No, his aim was more pure: to capture a surfer in the act of riding a wave.