Century-old surf photo goes to auction

The photo up for auction is believed to be one of the earliest surf photos on record. Courtesy Dominic Winter Auctions

One of the oldest photos of a surfer in Hawaii will go on sale Thursday as part of an auction in Britain.

The photo, taken more than 100 years ago, before the sport's modern revival, depicts an unknown surfer wearing a loincloth and posing with his wooden board near the shore at Waikiki Beach, with the profile of Diamond Head in the background.

The image provides a connection between the sport's current era and its historic roots in Hawaii, according to DeSoto Brown, collection manager of the Bishop Museum Archives in Honolulu.

"There is to this man, in this particular picture, a timeless quality," said Brown, an expert in Hawaiian surfing history. "If you gave him a different garment, he's someone you could see walking down the beach today."

The picture is part of a private collection of two albums filled with photos from Hawaii and Fiji. Dominic Waters Auctions displays several of the photos on its website and expects the images to fetch as much as $16,000.

When discussing the collection, Chris Albury of Dominic Winter Auctions singled the surfing photo out in a story published this week by the Daily Mail: "And what does stand out is the photograph of the surfer which we think was taken in about 1890 and is one of the earliest photos taken of a surfer."

Brown said the Bishop Museum has a copy of the image in its collection, and several others depicting the same surfer. He believes the image was taken around 1900. "This is not the oldest photograph with any absolute certainty," he said. "It's one of the oldest."

He said the photo was made for commercial purposes, with many copies produced for sale to tourists as souvenirs. "It's a beautiful picture," Brown said. "That's why it's been printed a lot."

Still, he said the image is historically significant because it depicts an era at Waikiki that led to a resurgence of surfing and its eventual spread around the world. Surfing and other aspects of Hawaii's cultural heritage were suppressed by Christian missionaries through most of the 19th century. By the time the photo in the auction was taken, only a small group of surfing practitioners continued the tradition.

But the sport got a boost during the early 1900s when a talented swimmer named Duke Kahanamoku and his cohort established a surfing club at Waikiki called Hui Nalu, or Club of the Wave Riders. Kahanamoku won Olympic gold medals in swimming in 1912 and 1920, and the resulting fame made him a kind of international ambassador for Hawaii. He performed surfing demonstrations in Australia and along the West Coast of the United States, spreading the sport around the world. Meanwhile, visiting tourists learned to surf at Waikiki.

In the photo for auction, the surfer appears to be holding an Alaia, a round-nosed board without fins. Often made from koa, they were used until the early 20th century and have seen a surge in interest by surfboard shapers during the past five years.

To Brown, the photo and all the other evidence proves one thing.

"Surfing as we know it, and all over the world, can be traced back to Hawaii," he said.