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Rare A.R. Gurrey Jr. Surfing Book: 'The Surf Riders of Hawaii' Up for Auction

May 7, 2013 1 p.m.


Scott Bass, Board member, Surf Heritage & Culture Center and director of the Surf Auction

Joel T. Smith, chair of the Surf Heritage & Culture Center print committee.

Related Story: Rare A.R. Gurrey Jr. Surfing Book: 'The Surf Riders of Hawaii' Up for Auction


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego surfing legend Skype Frye is contributing surfboards to the Orange County auction this weekend. They are a number of items on the block to benefit the surfing heritage and cultural center. But the most important piece is a rare handmade surfing book dating back to 1914. There are only eight known copies of "surf riders of Hawaii." Here with some insight on this extraordinary book and a glimpse into the action are my guests, Scott Bass. You hear his voice every day giving the surf report on KPBS morning edition. He's director of the surfing heritage auction and serves on the board of the surfing heritage and cultural center.

BASS: It's nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Joel T. Smith is cochair of the surfing heritage and cultural center committee. Before we talk about this book, give us some background on the suffering heritage and culture center. I know you've referred to it as the Smithsonian of the surfing world.

BASS: It's the largest repository of historical surfboards, images, imagery, oral history, and of what we call surf print or surf media, which would be basically books and literature and, yeah, we like to think of it as the Smithsonian. That might be a touch of hyperbole, perhaps.


BASS: But it's a very important center, and we're really excited to be having the auction which benefits the center.

CAVANAUGH: It seems like a natural fit, this rare book, surf riders of Hawaii would be part of the auction. How did you acquire the book?

BASS: One of our members, Timmy de la Vega, did some research, was doing research on the book and is a big fan of the book, and a guy who knows a lot about the book much like Joel. And through his research, he found out that the Gurrey estate, I guess you will, was -- if it was up for auction, but basically through research, Timmy did some research which led him to meet the heir to the Gurrey estate. And that's basically how we came about finding it.

CAVANAUGH: When I heard about this book and the fact that there are only eight known copies, you just automatically want to learn more about this guy, A. R. Gurrey junior. Was he an avid surfer?

SMITH: He was. He was a pretty remarkable guy. First of all, he was quite well educated. He has an engineering degree from cal Berkeley, and he worked as a civil engineer for a number of years before migrating over to Hawaii where his parents had moved. And his father was a very high-powered character. He was Hawaii's first insurance adjustor. And he's the guy that wrote all the fire maps for the city of Honolulu and Oahu. So A. R. Moved over there and worked as an emergency for only about a year doing some surveying work. And then he gave up engineering and opened an art gallery. And 1903, he opened up Gurrey's oriental and fine arts in Honolulu, and that became the center of the Hawaiian art scene. And he married a lady named Carolyn Haskins who was a photographer. In 1902, she was listed as the only woman photographic operator in the Hawaiian islands. And it was an unusual job for a woman at that time. Well, Carolyn became a world-renowned photographer as a portraitist. And she won awards all over the world. A. R., however, got into photography, and he was an avid surfer, and he began taking pictures of surfers. And on the only did he take pictures of surfer, but he went into the water, and he was one of the first to actually take water shots of people surfing. So he brought to surf photography a scientific background, and then a tremendous esthetics background. His father, incidentally accident was also an oil painter who outlived his son by 20 years and who is actually much more famous than his son. His oils, mostly seascapes, fetch quite a bit at auctions around the world and in museums.

CAVANAUGH: What was surfing like back in the turn of the century?

SMITH: Well, it had declined over the course of the 19th century for a variety of reasons. In my opinion, it was the decimation of the Hawaiian population. And I mean that literally, about 90% of the native Hawaiians died off from the 1780s to about 1900. And you can imagine as the population died off and as their culture was replaced by western culture, they were a demoralized people, and surf riding sort of faded away. It never disappeared. It was always around, but it had fallen into pretty wretched shape. And in the beginning of the 20th century, it began a revile. I contend around 1907, when Jack London and Alexander Ford met with George Freeth. And that really started things.

CAVANAUGH: Let me focus on the book. It's a book of photographs, but it's more than photographs. It's got poem, beautiful calligraphy, and it talks about the images in the photos. Does it give us some insight into the way those early 20th century surfers thought about surfing?

SMITH: Well, I think this book captured the spirit of surfing certainly better than anything that had been done up to that time. And even though the book itself -- we don't know how many copies of the book were made. They were all hand assembled, they were bound with cord. The books are made up of photographic prints which are actually pasted onto the paper. So we don't know how many were made. However the book was actually reproduced in a magazine in 1914. 1915, rather, a magazine called saint Nicholas, which was one of the most popular children's magazines in the United States. And the entire book was reproduced in that. Interesting that was the year that George Freeth was in in San Diego and working here and giving lessons at the Salt Water Plunge.

CAVANAUGH: What was your impression when you first saw this book?

BASS: It was in great condition, considering its age. And we were really excited when we opened up the box when it arrived, we put on the white glove, and we were all really excited to flip through each page. And I think the interesting thing about the book is that A. R. Gurrey junior was a surfer himself. And that's one of the reasons I think this book is so important. There were representations of surfing prior to this book, certainly there were drawings done. And there was imagery, photographs taken as well, but this was the first representation of surfing by a surfer. So in that vein, we occur A. R. Gurrey junior the father of surfing photograph. Because he understood it, he was one of us, he was accepted by the Hawaiian surfers, which in and of itself was sort of unique. But I think that's perhaps the most important thing about this book, at least to me, that this guy was one of us.

CAVANAUGH: And there is as Scott points out, a multicultural aspect to what Gurrey did at that time. I read is that he sort of left a yacht club that didn't welcome Hawaiians in it and chose instead to take his camera and his surfboard down and join the local people who were suffering.

SMITH: Yeah, A. R. Obviously came from a prestigious family with a lot of power in Hawaiian society. And the canoe club had been founded in 1909, and he could have joined the club, but it had a racial policy. It was exclusively white. Instead he joined a club made up exclusively of Hawaiians and what they call Hapa Hales, there were only I think three or four non-Hawaiians in the club, and A. R. Gurrey was one of them. That says a lot about A. R. Gurrey, that he would join that club rather than the outrigger, and that the Hawaiians wanted him in their club. It goes beyond that. I just recently learned -- I thought Gurrey had worked with Kodak film, and I just recently learned that he had the Ansco Film contract for the Hawaiian islands. And he became the U.S. photography for the Navy. He hired a young Chinese American named Tiling sung, and he took him with him to San Francisco to buy goods. And Ty wind up becoming the official photographer of the U.S. Navy until 1960, trained by Gurrey, and he's the guy who took all of those iconic shots of the postPearl Harbor devastation. And it was a guy trained by A. R. Gurrey.

CAVANAUGH: Links and links and links!

SMITH: For somebody to hire a Chinese to be his primary cameraman in 1906, that also says a lot about A. R. Gurrey.

CAVANAUGH: Now, aside from Gurrey, the primary auction piece that you have, this extraordinary book, what else is going to be up for auction?

BASS: Well, we have over 50 live auction surfboards. So 50 iconic vintage surfboards from legendary Californians. California gold is the theme of the auction. We did our best to focus on California board builders. Names bike pat Curran, skip Frye, these guys that really germinated the surf industry back in the '50s and '60s. Also the Pacific homes manufacturing company, the Buddy family owned them, and their son, or Myers buddy, he convinced his father to make surfboards. So now they're manufacturing redwood and balsa surfboards and selling them to the Hawaiians. We have four or five of those Pacific system homes boards on the auction as well.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both a wider question. A lot of people go out, surf, and they enjoy it. But they don't really get involved too much in the history of it. Why do you think it's important to preserve that aspect of surfing? Where it comes from and how it developed.

SMITH: Well, I think surfing and the surfer is really a cultural contribution to the United States. The surfer is as classic an image as the cowboy or the astronaut. And surfing culture has spread worldwide. It's an international, global tribe that people hold in common. Now, it's perfectly okay for people just to go out and surf and have fun. They don't have to care about the culture at all. But the culture has emerged, and it came from Hawaii to California to around the world. And that's a pretty significant thing. It's also engendered this huge industry. It's I think at this point a $6 billion worldwide industry. But the significant thing is, a surfer from San Diego can go to New Zealand or South Africa, and they'll fit right well because there are other members of the surfing tribe who are there. It transcends national boundaries.

CAVANAUGH: The auction takes place this Saturday at the Orange County fair and event center in Costa Mesa. We have more information and link to some of the items up for bid on our website. I guess you have them on yours as well, Scott.

BASS: Yeah,

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you both very much.

SMITH: Thank you.

BASS: Thank you, Maureen.