Searching for surfing videos will lead you into some of the gnarliest, most awe-inspiring rabbit holes on the internet—in part because there are so, so many of them out there.
You could spend days watching clips of surfers bumping across the monster wintertime waves at Waimea Bay, catching crisp lines at Bells, dropping into bomb swells at Jaws, and wiping out into the coral reef at Teahupoʻo. (And then there’s the endless footage of wave riding at secret and lesser-known breaks.)
Advances in camera technology—including waterproof lenses, GoPros, and drones—have made it easy (and relatively affordable) to capture high-quality footage of modern surfing. And the internet, with platforms like YouTube, has made it possible for people to share their videos far and wide.
But the art of surf filmography goes back to the very beginnings of motion pictures.
Overhead views and shore-break perspectives notwithstanding, the classic vantage point in surf films hasn’t changed that much in more than a century. No matter how much technology has advanced, “the ultra-simple tripod arrangement from shore has remained the bread-and-butter shot,” writes John Engle in his book, Surfing in the Movies. Which is part of why I was skeptical, when I happened across a YouTube video, which claimed to depict surfers in Honolulu 111 years ago, in footage of “Thomas Edison’s Hawaii.” The clip includes a fixed shot, about a minute long, of surfers on long boards, viewed from about 150 feet offshore. In other words, it looks a lot like surf filmography today—despite its black-and-white graininess.