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Dennis Stock’s Hawaii

As the Hawaiian islands mark 60 years since becoming a US state, we look back on Dennis Stock’s photos as we reflect on its rich landscape and cultural history

Dennis Stock

Dennis Stock Hawaii Island, tree burnt by volcanic ash in Volcano National Park. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

Since the first of the main Hawaiian Islands bubbled up from volcanic plumes and solidified above the sea’s surface some five million years ago, Hawaii has been one of Earth’s newest theaters hosting the dramas of life. Populated by storm-blown birds, current-riding terrestrial flora and ocean wildlife, as well as adventurous humans, everything—and everyone—has had to fight for their piece of this far-flung tropical Eden.

Dennis Stock Island of Oahu, Bird of Paradise flowers. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Island of Kauai, beach at Haena Point, north of Hanalei Bay, beginning of Nā Pali Coast, N.Coast. Hawaii Island, USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Large Aloe plant. Island of Hawaii © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Man in gourd helmet, an ancient costume. Pageant parade. Makaha Beach Park, Island of Oahu, HI. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

Hawaii’s remote exoticism has long drawn outsiders. Some 1,400 years after voyaging Polynesians became the first Hawaiians, missionaries arrived and began spreading new ideas while systematically subverting native culture, putting their own roots into the land. They discouraged Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, the native Hawaiian language, in favor of English, as well as traditional practices like hula (dance), oli (chant), and even pastimes like surfing.

Dennis Stock Pahoehoe Lava with fissure,from 1974 eruption. Hawaiian Volcano National Park, Island of Hawaii. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

From an estimated population of some 300,000 at the time Captain Cook’s arrival until the industrial sugar era of the 1840s, war and disease had whittled down the native Hawaiian population to a quarter of its size. Then, an influx of sugar plantation workers that far outnumbered Hawaiians arrived from around the globe—China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Portugal—adding their own languages and traditions to the mix of local identity. By the time commercial air travel opened Hawaii to the visiting masses around the time the islands became the 50th U.S. state in 1959, hundreds of thousands of vacationing visitors washed onto its shores. In the short time between then and 1980, when Dennis Stock visited offering a glimpse of the Islands as they were, the number of wide-eyed annual visitors boomed to nearly four million.

Dennis Stock Anthuriums. Honolulu, HI. USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Fort DeRussy Beach Park, Waikiki, Island of Oahu. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock The Hawaiin Fern Tree. Hawaii Island. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

A disconnect between the sanitized vacation-land concept of Hawaii sold to tourists—tiki-themed umbrella drinks, and hotels blaring California surf music—and the reality of the Hawaiian experience, grew as the volume of outsiders dwarfed native Hawaiian populations. In this, Hawaii experienced a Catch 22: As waves of tourists brought jobs and industry to the islands, it came at the expense of the natural beauty and traditional culture that visitors sought. Luxury hotels paved paradise and plants that were imported to diversify landscaping outcompeted native flora­–many plants associated with Hawaii, aren’t actually Hawaiian at all.

Dennis Stock Island of Maui, surfer at Honolua bay. Hawaii. USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Island of Molokai, beach. HI. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Island of Hawaii, moss growing. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

More people put a strain on the island’s infrastructure; expansion not only encroached on the remaining wild landscapes, but also on the physical remnants of native Hawaiian history. An inflated tourism economy made it harder for native Hawaiians (and other lower income minorities) to live in their homeland. And, with a native population that had all but erased their historical culture, new exotic traditions replaced the old. Even today, the dance that most outsiders think of as hula and associate with Hawaii—with grass skirts and gyrating hips—is actually from Tahiti. Real Hawaiian hula didn’t experience a true revival until the 1960s.

Dennis Stock Beachboy on Puna Coast. HI, USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Carved Tikis statues in civic center of North Kohala. Hawaii Island, HI, USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

When visiting writer Jack London saw a small group of Hawaii residents surfing in the waters off Oahu in 1905, he helped to spread word of the dying sport with the publication of his article “The Sport of Kings” in The Atlantic. The sport grew—in large part because of local ambassador/advocates like Duke Kahanamoku—and its said that when London returned to Waikiki ten years later, the local surfing club’s ranks had swelled to 1,500. Morphed and changed by California surfers, modern surfing—with its short boards and big wave jet-ski entries—is a highly evolved version of the ancient pastime.

Dennis Stock Sunset at Kihei, south coast. Island of Maui, HI, USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Fisherman casting net at outlet Kealia Pond, Maalaea Bay, West Coast. Island of Maui © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock Nā Pali Coastline. Island of Kauai © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos

It wasn’t until the early 1980s, around the time that Stock visited, that discussion of reintroducing Ōlelo Hawaiʻi in public schools began. At that time, the University of Hawaii developed a four-year language degree program; it was the first time that Hawaiian was the foundation of any form of government-funded education since 1895.

Cultures, including Hawaii’s, are rarely stagnant. In the last few decades, a new wave of “authentic” and “experiential” travel has prioritized finding “the real Hawaii.” This has translated to hotels staffing native Hawaiian cultural ambassadors, an increased interest in hula and Hawaiian language by residents and outsiders (Hawaiian was added as an official language to Google translate in 2016), and a broader awareness of the Hawaiian experience. Ever dynamic and evolving, Hawaiian culture is not stuck in its past, but instead looks to the past to inform the future. Perhaps going forward, the renewed interest in Hawaiian culture—particularly in tenant of aloha—will continue to shape and inform the construct that is Hawaii.

Meghan Miner Murray is a Hawaii-based science and travel writer.

Explore Holidaying culture through the lenses of Magnum photographers, here.

Dennis Stock Queen's Surf beach Park, Waikiki, Island of Oahu, HI, USA. 1980. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos