Wildly influential though mostly unknown, A.R. Gurrey Jr was born in Kansas in 1874. By 1900, as a trained civil engineer, he relocated to Hawaii. There, he surfed, declined a role within his father’s insurance business, and began working to open and operate an art gallery. In 1914, he published at least one edition of The Surf Riders of Hawaii—a hand-assembled book comprising mounted gelatin-silver photographs, poetry and titles in his own typography, all on heavy brown wove paper housed in stiff mottled wrappers. And though there were others who documented surfers before (usually from ashore or at local spots) it was Gurrey Jr who first compiled his images into a book—pioneering the intersection of art and sport. Eight of Gurrey Jr’s photographs exist inside the edition of The Surf Riders of Hawaii up for auction by Sotheby’s now.
Poetry by Lord Byron also graces the pages of the edition. The excerpt, taken from the second-to-last verse of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), praises sport in the sea: “And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy / Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be / Borne like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy / I wantoned with thy breakers—they to me / Were a delight; and if the freshening sea / Made them a terror—’twas a pleasing fear, / For I was as it were a child of thee, / And trusted to thy billows far and near, / And laid my hand upon thy mane—as I do here,” Byron writes.
This rare collector’s item slipped from sport’s lore until the early 2000s, Ella Hall—Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Specialist—tells us. It’s being offered now, at a starting bid of $26,000, as part of Sotheby’s two-part auction series of seldom-seen books, manuscripts, newspapers and other printed materials. While Gurrey Jr’s release falls under “books” categorically, his idea predated and established the formula for surf and skate zines, action photography, and even video compilations.
“There is earlier known surf photography, I think even going back as far as the 1890s, but this is the first book,” Hall tells us. “He was also the first photographer [of surfing] who was himself also a surfer. He approached the project with a real understanding of the sport. And we believe this was the first photography that was all really water-shot—he was in a canoe alongside these famous surfers, often getting drenched as he was attempting to take these high-octane sport photographs. It’s this nice intersection of his position as a surfer himself and the way that photography as a medium had developed to allow for something like this from a technical standpoint.”
It establishes a kind of visual vocabulary, at least for surf photography
“This is a kind of legendary surf rarity,” Hall says. “It’s quite early, and in any collecting field collectors are generally looking for primacy—the idea if the first something to do something. This is the first book-length treatment on surfing. That’s important in and of itself. And then it also establishes a kind of visual vocabulary, at least for surf photography. It’s a really important visual language.”
Looking beyond the contents, The Surf Riders of Hawaii also stands as an impressive printing feat. From the dense brown wove paper to the iridescence of the imagery, and the twine-bound spine, there’s evidence of talented craftsmanship on display here. The son of an artist (his father was a talented landscape painter) and the husband of an equally successful photographer, Gurrey Jr likely devoted years to this project.
“It’s hard to recapture the material magic of holding the original object,” Hall says. “But interestingly enough, in this lot there is included a centennial edition that surf scholar Timothy T. DeLaVega did in 2014. It was limited to 50 issues where he really tried to increase the accessibility of this work. He reproduced it to the best of his ability using the copy we are selling. He spent a number of years tracking down this book and it became the basis for the facsimile that attempted to recreate the magic of the original object.”
There is just a handful of copies of Gurrey Jr’s book out there, and the other known editions feature fewer photographs and aren’t in as good condition. Sotheby’s speculates that the original negatives for the book and an abundance of additional copies were destroyed in either a flood or a fire—both of which Gurrey Jr and his wife endured at their Hawaii home.
“It’s lovely to be a part of reestablishing his name as an important early documentarian because his name really does deserve to be recorded,” Hall tells us. “You can tell when you’re looking through the book, he really did contribute in fundamental ways to recording this sport.”
The Surf Riders of Hawaii, 1914, by A.R. Gurrey Jr is available at auction until 21 July. The starting bid for the lot including the original copy and its centennial reproduction sits at $26,000 at the time of publish.
Images courtesy of Sotheby’s