The Waves of Yesteryear

Surfing has been photographed since cameras arrived in the islands. But which image was the first?
Story by Peter Von Buol.

Earlier this year the British auction house Bonhams announced the sale of sixty-two photographs taken in Hawai‘i in the 1890s. Intriguingly, this collection included an early image of Hawaiian surfers. The photo, described with the caption “Surf Riders and their boards, Hilo Bay,” shows a pair of men standing at water’s edge, looking directly at the camera and holding their surfboards under their arms.

Prior to the sale, the auction house estimated that the entire collection would sell for between $1,500 and $3,000. According to DeSoto Brown, a historian at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum and one of the world’s foremost experts on early photography in the Islands, Bonhams relied on the Hilo bay image in particular to generate substantial interest. Stories about the collection appeared in news outlets around the world, including the United States, Australia and Britain. In the end the collection went for $35,601—more than ten times the most optimistic presale estimate.

Early images of surfers and surfing are of growing interest to collectors worldwide. The image above, of two surfers standing on the edge of Hilo bay, was part of a collection that recently sold at auction for more than $35,000.

“The auction house was smart to hype the surf photo,” says Brown. “Since the photo is legitimately rare, this aroused interest among surfing collectors as well as Hawaiiana collectors. Now, to be honest, there is not an immense number of either type of collector, but obviously there was enough competition to get the price way up.” Given the date, the Hilo bay image is among the earliest known photographs of Hawaiian surfers—but is it the oldest? The short answer is no. There are a handful of other known photos from the same era, including one in the collection of the Bishop Museum archives that features the same two Hilo surfers as that sold by Bonhams, but in a slightly different pose. The longer answer starts before there was ever a camera.

Hawaiian surfing has captivated visitors ever since Captain James Cook visited the Islands in 1778 and 1779. The official account of Cook’s trip, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, was published posthumously in 1784 and includes a detailed description of surfing, written by Captain James King, one of Cook’s subordinates on his final voyage. “Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost height, they choose that time for this amusement [surfing],” King writes. “Beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their board, and prepare for their return. … Their first object is to place themselves at the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore. The boldness and address with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers, was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited.”

Wave riding had a similar effect on nineteenth-century visitors, including William Ellis, an early Protestant missionary from Great Britain, Herman Melville and, later, Mark Twain. All were in awe of Hawaiians’ ability to surf. “Snatching them up, [the wave] hurries them landward, volume and speed both increasing, till it races along a watery wall, like the smooth, awful verge of Niagara. Hanging over the scroll, looking down from it as from a precipice, the bathers halloo; every limb in motion to preserve their place at the crest of the wave,” wrote Melville in 1849, two years before his novel Moby-Dick.

The Hilo photo dates to roughly 1890, as does the image on the opening spread. The oldest known photograph to include a surfer, seen above, was shot in 1887.

Despite all of the hyperbolic imagery in the written accounts, or perhaps because of it, none of the illustrations that accompany these early narratives accurately depict surfing. Some had surfers on the very top of a wave, and others had surfers riding behind the wave’s crest, as if in danger of sliding backward and out to sea. This is not surprising, given that in most cases the engravers who created the prints for these publications were at minimum one step removed from reality—they had not traveled to the Islands themselves and were dependent on the descriptions or sketches of others. It was not until 1839 that Frenchman Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype, the first widely adopted photographic process. Roughly six years later Theophilus Metcalf opened the first commercial photography studio in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

According to the advertisements he placed in Honolulu newspapers, Metcalf used Daguerre’s process. Could such a camera have captured mid-nineteenth-century Hawaiian surfers riding a wave? It is doubtful. While none of Metcalf’s images survive, the forte of the daguerreotype cameras was studio portraiture. Each portrait requires a few minutes of exposure, and participants had to remain still to produce an image that was not distorted. This is why the subjects of mid-nineteenth-century portraits often appear dour—one could not hold a smile long enough to take an image. Clearly a daguerreotype camera would not have been suitable to shoot the quintessential image of Hawai‘i, a surfer riding a wave.

The earliest surviving photos of Hawai‘i were taken a few years after Metcalf’s studio had closed. Photographers such as the German-born Hugo Stangenwald, whose portraits of King Kamehameha IV and the royal family are well known today, also used a daguerreotype and had the same limitations in shooting motion that Metcalf had.

While technological innovations continued throughout the nineteenth century, the ambrotype and the tintype cameras that replaced the daguerreotype remained more suitable for studio portraiture and landscapes. None of the early outdoor photo-graphs depict surfing—partly for a lack of capable technology, and partly for a lack of subjects. Surfing, like hula, the Hawaiian language and other aspects of Hawaiian culture, had been actively suppressed during the early missionary era. This period was also marked by a high mortality rate among Native Hawaiians, whose immune systems were not equipped to handle the arrival of foreign diseases.

“There weren’t that many surfers around by the time of early photography,” says DeSoto Brown. “Certainly, they were not as prominent as they would be in Waikīkī after 1900, for example. And if surfers were out in the country, they wouldn’t have been encountered by many photographers.”

In 1884, New York inventor George Eastman developed the first film camera. Freed from large photographic plates and toxic chemicals, photography became much more portable, inexpensive and user-friendly. Exposure time was much shorter, making it possible to capture motion.

Prior to Western contact, surfing was prevalent throughout the Islands. The earliest known image of surfers actually riding waves, seen here, was shot on Ni‘ihau in 1890.

The photographs that Bonhams put on sale earlier this year seem to have been taken in the 1890s. They had belonged to the descendants of Herbert Smith. A draper by trade, Smith had come to the Islands from Manchester, England, in 1893 to work for Theo. Davies and Company, a Hawai‘i-based, Anglo-Hawaiian conglomerate. Smith was also an amateur photographer. After he had returned home to England, British newspaper accounts document a Herbert Smith from Manchester displaying his photos at exhibitions. Could he have shot these early surf images? No, says DeSoto Brown.

“These photos are commercial photo-graphs taken by professional photographers, which were sold in stores,” he notes. “Local people bought such photos and framed them or put them in albums; tourists bought them as souvenirs.” As evidence of how prevalent these images once were, Brown points to Bishop Museum’s version of the image Bonhams recently sold at auction. “But ours is so faded,” he says, “that none of the background is visible at all. I also have a Hilo Drug Company postcard of this picture, postmarked 1906.” This same photo appeared in Brown’s 2008 book Surfing: Historic Images from the Bishop Museum Archives.

The photo once owned by Smith is an early depiction of surfers, but it is not the earliest. According to Brown, the oldest known image dates to 1887 and is held by the Hawai‘i State Archives. In this image a surfer is clutching his board in the background while King David Kalākaua and Commodore John S. Dickerson, the winning skipper of the 1876 America’s Cup yacht race, pose on the beach. According to Bill Conklin, Dickerson’s great-great-grandson, the king had personally invited the commodore to Hawai‘i. Dickerson, who loved to travel, accepted the royal invitation, bringing along his wife and their nine-year-old son. During their six-week stay the Dickersons traveled throughout the archipelago. However, while he wrote home to describe such sights as the 1887 Mauna Loa eruption, the captain made no mention of surfing. Due to the fading of the Hawai‘i State Archives print, it is not clear where the photograph was taken, and the photographer remains unknown.

The photo of a surfer that is believed to be the second oldest shows a man wearing cutoff shorts and standing on Waikīkī beach in front of the Park Beach Hotel, which opened in 1888 and closed less than a year later. Thus this image can fairly reliably be dated to 1888, the same year the first Kodak film camera became available. It would, therefore, seem logical that the oldest photograph to show someone riding a wave would have been taken shortly afterward. Is there a photograph from this period? Yes, but it is not in a Hawai‘i archive. It is in the photo archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

While surfing had been the national pastime of ancient Hawai‘i, practiced throughout the Islands, by the late 1800s Waikīkī beach was considered the sport’s primary arena. Interesting then that the first known action photo of surfing was not taken at Waikīkī. Rather, it was shot on the island of Ni‘ihau by H. Carrington Bolton, a Smithsonian-affiliated scientist who visited the Islands in 1890. Bolton had traveled to Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau to investigate what caused the phenomenon of the “barking sand” at Kaua‘i’s Keonekani o Nohili, popularly known as Barking Sands Beach. He had previously visited a site in the Sinai with comparable properties and wanted to compare the two. On Kaua‘i, Hans Peter Faye and George Gay brought him to Barking Sands. Afterward, Gay took him to Ni‘ihau, the island owned by his family. Bolton detailed his experiences in an article he wrote for the Journal of American Folklore.

“Here I witnessed, by the courtesy of Mr. Gay, the sport of surf-riding, once so universally popular, and now but little seen. Six stalwart men, by previous appointment, assembled on the beach of a small cove, bearing with them their precious surf-boards, and accompanied by many women and a few children, all eager to see the strangers, and mildly interested in the sport. After standing for their photograph, the men removed all their garments, retaining only the malo, or loin-cloth, and walked into the sea, dragging or pushing their surf-boards as they reached deeper water,” writes Bolton. “As commonly described in the writings of travelers, an erroneous impression is conveyed, at least to my mind, as to the position which the rider occupies with respect to the combing wave. Some pictures, too, represent the surf-riders on the seaward slope of the wave, in positions which are incompatible with the results. I photographed the men of Niihau before they entered the water, while surf-riding, and after they came out. The second view shows plainly the positions taken, although the figures are distant and consequently small.”

Bolton took at least three images of the surfers on Ni‘ihau. He used them as projected slides for a presentation he gave at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in 1890. Today, Bolton’s photograph of the Ni‘ihau surfers riding a wave is part of the photo collection at the Smithsonian Institution. A second photo-graph taken by Bolton (of the surfers before they entered the ocean) appears in the 2011 book Surfing in Hawai‘i: 1778–1930, written by Kaua‘i author and surf historian Timothy De La Vega. This photo was published in Kaua‘i’s Garden Island newspaper in the 1970s. Chris Cook, a former editor of the newspaper, lent De La Vega a copy for his book. Bolton described using a third image at the 1890 meeting, but its current location is unknown.

“When Dr. Bolton presented his papers, he also presented a magic lantern slide show, so it is hard to say what type camera he had. Most likely [he used a] large format with glass plates,” says De La Vega, noting that more affordable—and user-friendly—cameras were still just over the horizon. “Film was out then but still very new. Most photographers still used glass plates of various sizes. Kodak’s Brownie was still a few years away, which would usher in the first photo boom for the masses.”

So far, Bolton’s images appear to be the oldest photographic depictions of surfers riding waves, while the Kalākaua image is ultimately the oldest image of a surfer. But the high sale price of the Bonhams photographs may ultimately help unearth other previously unknown images. Such was the case when an early set of surfing photographs became famous a few years back. The photos, which were taken by A. R. Gurrey Jr. circa 1910, were pasted into a softbound booklet and sold by the photographer in downtown Honolulu under the title The Surf Riders of Hawaii. De La Vega has identified eight extant copies of the original booklet, produced between 1911 and 1915.

“When The Surf Riders of Hawaii was identified as ‘the first surfing book,’ its reputation grew,” recounts DeSoto Brown. “One sold for auction for $37,500. So, of course, this then scared up at least one more copy.” HH