Tourists ride an outrigger as surfers form up on a Waikiki wave in a 1930s postcard. CLICK FOR LARGE
Bishop Museum publishes a collection of historic surfing photos
"Surfing: Historic Images from Bishop Museum Archives," by DeSoto Brown, (Bishop Museum Press, 154 pages, $14.95)|
DESOTO BROWN is the first to admit he's not actually the surfing type himself. He's more of an indoor, controlled-environment kind of guy. But growing up in Hawaii, the call of the waves was irresistible. Even a dryfoot
like Brown managed to get his toes wet on occasion, and once you caught a bitchin' ride, you never quite forgot the feeling.
But that was high school in the '60s, this is now, and Brown -- an archivist at Bishop Museum and one-man fount of Hawaii pop-culture ephemera -- has rooted around in the museum's massive photo collection and assembled the aptly titled photo book "Surfing -- Historic Images from Bishop Museum's Archives."
"It's something I've wanted to do for a long, long time, and I've been working with Bishop Museum's photo collection for, gosh, like more than 20 years now," said Brown. "We have the largest historic photo collection in Hawaii and about Hawaii, and so we also felt a need to do a book like this to show off our wonderful images."
Timeout for commentary: "Surfing" is a modest, enjoyable effort that certainly isn't a portfolio of the greatest surfing pictures ever taken. There are plenty of books like that already. These images are all from one source, the museum archives, and the nature of the collection dictates that the pictures are anecdotal and historical.
If you're looking for a basic book about surf history, with a strong emphasis on the very early days, coupled with Brown's witty captions and clever editing, this book fits the bill. It's also a heck of a lot less expensive than those other surf histories. After lying dormant for so long, it's good to see Bishop Museum Press bounce back with a general-interest crowd-pleaser like "Surfing."
"THE PRESS was moribund for a long time, and it feels good to get something like this out," said Brown. "It's a good idea to open up the archives on a specific subject this way. They're actively doing stuff to appeal to different audiences than before. Many of our earlier publications were excellent but not aimed at the general public. There was no money -- but a book like 'Surfing' will make money for the museum, and it's also good to see our resources being used."
The book is also riding a groundswell of increasing public interest in the history of surfing. "The sport just exploded in the '60s and became part of American pop culture, and the guys who were hanging out on the beaches then have settled into careers and are looking back," said Brown. "That's why you're seeing a number of surfing books now -- even though they're pretty much California-oriented. We wanted to show off previously unpublished surfing pictures from Hawaii. Or, if it's a classic image, we'll have additional information or show different versions of the same situation."
Even in 1961, the waves were the same, a summertime South Shore break running from Ala Moana to Waikiki to Kahala. The music of the Beach Boys and movies like "Gidget," set off an explosion in the popularity of surfing and American pop culture was forever changed. CLICK FOR LARGE
The book has, as expected, a long section featuring Duke Kahanamoku, including the earliest pictures of him on a board. But Brown has also showcased a fellow named Tom Blake, who was sort of the Leonardo Da Vinci of surfing -- artist, inventor, sportsman, promoter.
"Tom Blake was very important in the development of surfing, and we have many pictures of him -- he was handsome like a suntan model -- but also by him. Blake engineered many of the techniques in the construction of lightweight boards, and invented things like the skeg," said Brown. Interestingly, it was a photo of surfing that drew Blake to Hawaii, and he didn't learn to surf until he was nearly 30.
COULDN'T WE learn all this in a surfing museum? After all, surfing was invented here.
Oh, yeah. What surf museum?
"Surfing is a very intense and significant part or our culture, not just ethnically, and it's sad that it's not well represented to the public," mused Brown. "We certainly could use a real surfing museum in the islands. The biggest interest in surfing museums seems to come from Australia. Australians weren't much into beach culture until about 1914, 1915, when Duke Kahanamoku toured there and created tremendous interest. Within a decade the Aussies were so organized in surfing as sport they were speaking disparagingly of Waikiki, where surfing was 'too casual.'"
In this shot, one of surfing engineer Tom Blake's innovative designs for a lightweight longboard was built on Lanai in 1939. The plans were available in Popular Science. CLICK FOR LARGE
The upcoming renovation of the museum's Hawaiian Hall will likely feature a classic Hawaii longboard, one of several in the museum's collection. The book is rich with images of various types of surfboard designs, and Brown takes note of the changing technology in board construction as well. But the book never quite forgets that it's all about having fun at the beach, even in quite humble ways.
A couple of pages show kids skimming paipo boards across small waves or damp sand. For anybody who spent hours in shop class sanding and spar-varnishing a stubborn slab of plywood, it brings back memories of endless summer. You can't ask any more of a book.