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.
On paper, A.R. Gurrey Jr. hardly fits the description of a waterman. In surviving photos he’s pictured in a white suit and tie, a slight man with dark hair and a trim mustache. Born in Kansas in 1874, he was an engineer, having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. His father, Alfred Richard Gurrey Sr., was for seventeen years the Territory of Hawai‘i’s principle insurance adjuster, and he brought Junior to the Islands at the end of the nineteenth century.
Although Gurrey Jr. was trained as an engineer, by temperament he seems to have been a mix of artisan and businessman. In late 1902 advertisements first began to appear in Honolulu newspapers for Gurrey Honolulu, a shop at the corner of Hotel and Alakea Streets offering furniture design and picture framing services, pottery and books and “A Hawaiian Calendar with Photographs by Miss Caroline Haskins.” Haskins had begun making her name in Honolulu art circles in 1900. Gurrey Jr. and Caroline were married in June 1903 and would eventually have two children who survived into adulthood, a daughter and son. The first Gurrey business appears to have closed in 1903, but in 1908 Gurrey Jr. bought out Hawaii Photo & Art Company in downtown Honolulu and renamed the shop Gurrey & Co. He would later sell his interest in this shop and open another not far away.
Throughout this period the local press offers small glimpses into the life of the family. The front pages were usually the realm of Gurrey Sr., whose work as an insurance adjuster made him a prominent figure of the day. The elder Gurrey was also an artist, and one sees occasional reference to exhibits of his paintings. The society pages are sprinkled with news of Caroline’s photo exhibits, of “artistic luncheons” the couple hosted in their Waikiki residence, of Gurrey Jr.’s membership on a variety of boards: the Kilohana Art League, the University of California club and the Waialae, Kaimuki and Palolo Improvement Association.
In December 1908, a few months after the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded, the Hawaiian Star notes that Gurrey (presumably junior, though it’s not clear in the article) donated a canoe, the Kamaaina, to the fledgling club. This is interesting because—as surf historians Joel T. Smith and Sandra Kimberley Hall have documented— Gurrey himself later joined the Hui Nalu Canoe Club, also founded in 1908, as a counterpoint to the more racially exclusive Outrigger. Early members of Hui Nalu, a club co-founded by Duke Kahanamoku, were predominantly Hawaiian or hapa-haole (Hawaiian-Caucasian).
Roughly two years later Gurrey’s surfing photos began to appear in everything from Paradise of the Pacific (now Honolulu magazine) to the “young adult” magazine St. Nicholas out of New York to Spur, an East Coast magazine devoted, oddly, to horsemanship. For the cover of the 1911 debut issue of The Mid-Pacific, Ford chose Gurrey’s image of Duke Kahanamoku. (The lead story was a history of surfing, credited to Duke Paoa—that is, Duke Kahanamoku.)
It’s not surprising that Gurrey’s photographs were in demand: There wasn’t anything like them. To date no one has definitively settled the question of what kind of camera Gurrey used or how he made his images, but he clearly took advantage of recent technology: Lighter, more portable cameras and film (as opposed to glass plate negatives) were available by 1900. Given the angle of most of his photos and his proximity to the surfers, it’s also likely that he was shooting from an outrigger canoe (a theory reinforced by his association with the canoe clubs of the day). However he captured his images, they are unique in that they placed viewers —many of whom would never have seen surfing—in among the waves. For those familiar with surfing, his photos are arresting even today: He captures the sport’s motion and energy, of the riders and the waves, familiar to anyone who surfs. In many cases the perspective is close to that of someone paddling out into the lineup as another surfer rides by. That the images were made a hundred years ago and the surfers pictured have now passed into legend heightens the sense that these photos are something rare … and, like a wave and a life, fleeting.
In the early 1920s Gurrey Jr.’s status was high enough to be included in the annual Men of Hawaii, a biographical dictionary that lists the Islands’ social elite. But over the course of a few years, his fortunes changed. In 1923 economics forced him to close his shop and enter the insurance business. Then, in September 1927, Caroline died. Gurrey followed six months later. He was 53.
From that point forward his legacy was largely forgotten. Or it would have been if not for The Surf Riders of Hawaii.
Tim DeLaVega is among that breed of surfing historian who knows a lot about A.R. Gurrey. Working with an ad hoc, worldwide team of researchers — to whom he habitually refers as “the TEAM,” an acronym for Together Everyone Accomplishes More—the Kaua‘i-based writer and photographer has over the last decade orchestrated a series of publishing projects, including 200 Years of Surfing Literature: An Annotated Bibliography (2004) and Surfing in Hawai‘i: 1778-1930 (2011). For the past decade DeLaVega and his team have been piecing together Gurrey’s biography, in particular the history of the book that Gurrey created, The Surf Riders of Hawaii, which Tim considers to be the first book devoted entirely to surfing.
“It was so special,” says DeLaVega, recalling the first time he saw a copy of Surf Riders. “It’s not a very big book, but it captures everything of that era: The purity of it, the ‘stoke’ for lack of a better word.” With two pages of text (one of them an extract from a poem by Lord Byron) and a total of eight photographs, some might consider it a stretch to call this a “book” about surfing, but there is no denying the stoke. Tim and crew have identified eight copies of Surf Riders printed between 1911 and 1915. Two are in Hawai‘i — one at Bishop Museum and the other at the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library. All are handmade, with the binding stitched and the photos glued in place.
“Ten or twelve years ago, the first time I looked at this, Gurrey was virtually unknown and the book was really unknown,” says DeLaVega. “There was no real value to it; you could buy one for less than $1,000 if you could find one.” Those days are gone. When Sotheby’s put a copy of the book on auction in 2011 the estimated value was pegged at between $5,000 and $7,000. When the gavel dropped, the sale price was $37,500.
Having seen the book, DeLaVega couldn’t stop thinking about it: Gurrey deserved to be acknowledged for his place in surfing history, and that wasn’t going to happen so long as Surf Riders was inaccessible to most of the world. So he decided to republish it, using the same techniques that Gurrey had. Though Surf Riders has by now passed into the public domain, DeLaVega first sought permission from Gurrey’s descendants. When one of the family members discovered a copy in their home and offered to give it to DeLaVega, he instead helped them bring the book to auction: That copy sold for $31,500.
With the family’s permission but without access to Gurrey’s original negatives — none are believed to still exist—DeLaVega examined as many of the original books (six) as he could and made digital copies of the images. He re-created negatives and then made new photo prints using the same gelatin-silver processing Gurrey had used. He sourced handmade paper to create as exact a match as possible. Now that he’s got all of the components, he is ready to start assembling the books, which he estimates he’ll sell for between $200 and $300 —which, considering the labor involved, is more or less a break-even proposition. “It will actually be two handmade books,” says DeLaVega, “the original and then a companion that will have more information on Gurrey along with some other of his photos that have never been published before.”
In the meantime DeLaVega and TEAM have created a web site devoted to Gurrey and Surf Riders (surfridershawaii.blogspot.com) where they continue to explore his life and legacy. “Joel Smith,” says DeLa- Vega, “is really on a mission to document that Gurrey was the first water photographer, but it’s really hard to prove.” And while DeLaVega sees him as a major figure in the history of surf photography, he also notes that Gurrey was a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“You look at some of the pictures, and they’re as outstanding now as they were then. But if you understand the revolution of photography back then, that era was like where we are now with digital photography: You were going from glass plates, where you pretty much had to mix your own chemicals, to all of a sudden having cameras you could hold and film that you could send off to be processed. And you could even process your own film and make prints and you wouldn’t die doing it. So it was bound to happen, and really Waikiki was perfect for it. But by doing the book he really made his mark on the history of surf photography.”