He manu ke aloha ‘a’ohe lālā kau ‘ole
(Love is like a bird- there is no branch that it does not perch upon)
The location of the Hawaiian islands has long shaped the destiny of its people. Ironically, the most isolated place on Earth has also proved to be fertile ground for the co-mingling of cultures and ideas. When Caroline Gurrey arrived from California in 1901, it had only been a few short years since the islands were formally annexed by the United States. Greeted by stunning natural beauty, the burgeoning cosmopolitan city of Honolulu, and swirling talk of progress, there was no shortage of inspiration for a young photographer.
In 1909, Gurrey completed a series of portraits which would become her most significant and lasting body of work, The Hawaiian Types Series, which featured students of full or mixed native ancestry from the Kamehameha Schools. The resulting set of 50 photographs were executed in a hybrid style which blended elements of Pictorialism and Ethnography, mirroring her intention to have them stand both as works of art and a documentary record of early racial mixing.
In The Calabash, a young Italian-Hawaiian woman is pictured in profile. Her arms are extended, holding the large communal serving bowl so symbolic of traditional Hawaiian culture and family. Only a handful of pieces in the series were given a title, but each is labeled with the ethnic heritage of the model. While the pose, inclusion of cultural artifacts, and identifying label are reminiscent of ethnographic study, there is an artistic quality to her work which stands in stark contrast to the realistic objectivity sought by scientists of the day. The portraits are beautiful, and intentionally so. By incorporating all the style hallmarks of Pictorialism- soft focus, fine grain, visible manipulation, and sepia toning- Gurrey brought a positive lens to her subjects during a time of great racial anxiety.
The delicate beauty of the series was not lost on the politicians and businessmen from the United States mainland. Gurrey’s portraits were selected as one of the central exhibitions in the Hawai’i building at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which had a stated aim to market the islands as an attractive place for settlement and development. Over the years, the series continued to be a point of reflection for artists, anthropologists, and even (in dark times) eugenicists, ultimately finding a home in the collection of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.
2012 ‘Beautiful Hybrids’: Coroline Gurrey’s Photographs of Hawai’i’s Mixed-Race Children. History of Photography, 36:2, 184-198.
2012 Ethnographic Pictorialism: Caroline Gurrey’s Hawaiian Types at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. History of Photography, 36:2, 172-183.