Published: November 26, 2019
Review by Walt Borton
DENVER – Those of us collecting or trading fine art, design, crafts and old objects often become, without realizing it, the guardians of history, the keepers of the lyrics and legends of others’ ancestors or even our own. It begins with a small spark of curiosity that prompts study, yields scholarship and occasionally evolves into obsession.
This is the story of two individuals, separated in time by more than a century, whose spark of curiosity led each to such an obsession, and ultimately to major roles in the conservation of a culture.
Most know the story of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). By his late teens in the 1880s, Curtis mastered the emerging art of photography, skillfully wielding the era’s large format wooden cameras and glass negatives in and beyond his Seattle studio.
Curtis’ curiosity about the Native Americans he encountered hiking the Puget Sound shores quickly morphed into an obsession to photographically capture their way of life before the relentless, often ruthless, dominant white culture succeeded in destroying it.
By 1906, having established his reputation photographing expeditions with the likes of naturalist John Muir and anthropologist/historian George B. Grinnell, Curtis convinced philanthropist J.P. Morgan to lay out $75,000 to fund his obsession, a photographic and ethnographic study – The North American Indian.
Over the next 30 years, Curtis visited 82 tribes, documenting their lives, customs, regalia, religious practices, myths, legends and landscapes with 40,000 photographs and 10,000 wax cylinder recordings.
Completed in 1936, The North American Indian consists of 20 portfolios, each with at least 35, 17-by-22-inch photogravure prints. Accompanying the photogravures, every portfolio included a book compiling the recordings and interviews into more than 70,000 words of text and an additional 1,500 images.
Fewer than 250 of the planned 500 portfolios were printed and most were purchased by libraries or wealthy individuals. Many of those were ultimately broken-up for framing. By the late Twentieth Century, only a handful of complete editions were known to exist.
Few know the story of Paul Unks. “I’ve been studying Curtis’ work since 1970, when, as a freshman in photojournalism at the University of Missouri,” Unks explains, “I first saw Curtis’ images – I was in awe of both the photography and the cultural record. As a youth I developed great respect and compassion for the Indians and remain troubled by what happened to them and is still happening.”
By 1995 Unks was teaching at the University of Denver. One day, after casually mentioning Edward Curtis’ work during class, a student asked if he had seen the original Curtis prints in the university library. He had not.
Visiting the university’s Penrose Library later he discovered not just “some original Curtis prints,” but a pristine, complete edition of Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian.
“I’ve examined Curtis’ prints and occasionally a portfolio in many libraries, so I have a pretty good frame of reference,” Unks said. “When Denver’s photo curator put the first of their 20 portfolios on the table, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
This Moroccan leather-bound portfolio had been protected from sunlight and humidity in the library’s climate-controlled vault since it was given to the university in 1938. “How beautiful they were, how perfectly-preserved,” he said, “tears came to my eyes.”
Unks understood that most of Curtis’ original glass negatives had been destroyed and efforts to digitally create new prints from aging originals had met limited success. The portfolio’s original copper photogravure plates, badly stored, were so deteriorated that quality reprinting, even with the right paper and inks, was impossible.
Studying the University of Denver edition, Unks realized it represented the last best opportunity for Curtis’ The North American Indian to survive. His obsession had found him.
Over several years, he tried every conceivable digital scanning technique, concluding that only new negatives, shot from the Denver edition, could replicate the exceptional detail and tonal subtlety of Curtis’ works. New negatives meant using a large format camera off campus and that meant finding an underwriter to insure the Denver edition, by then worth more than $2.5 million.
Unks struggled for seven years to create copper printing plates yielding photogravures that matched the quality of Curtis’ originals. During this period of extensive trial and error, he twice mortgaged his house to finance the expense of production. In 2006, when he achieved the perfect combination of copper plate etching, inks, paper and pressure, the university granted him exclusive rights to strike images based on its edition.
Perfecting Curtis’ favored gold-tone technique (blending precious metals in a customized emulsion to print photographs on glass) took another three years.
Accepting the impossibility of printing all 2,200 images from books and the portfolios, Unks said, “I limited my work mostly to the portfolio photogravures and began republishing them as photogravures on tissue or cotton in Curtis’ original two sizes, the large folios and smaller images from the texts and gold tones.”
His early prints appeared exactly as the originals and it was not long before success presented two serious problems.
Ethical and well-established dealers of Curtis’ work were very concerned because his photogravures were so difficult to distinguish from originals, which were selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Worse, unethical dealers were eager to pay Unks’ prices (from $650 to $1,900) intending to resell the works as originals.
Solving both problems, Unks added his Mountain Hawk Fine Art logo to the bottom corner of every print.
His obsession is not just to assure Curtis’ portfolios survive or to preserve methods creating beautiful and accurate images, he now regularly meets with Native organizations and schools sharing his discoveries and helping descendants of Curtis’ subjects discover their ancestors and ancestral ways. Unks also “repatriates,” he gives each descendant he encounters a print of their ancestor.
Unks is now working on his own book recounting his journey with Curtis’ work and sharing his stories of the descendants of Curtis’ Native American Indian subjects, to increase understanding and appreciation of his photographs.
In the first portfolio of The North American Indian, Curtis wrote that medicine men believed, “…when all the ceremonies are forgotten, the world will cease to exist.”
Edward Curtis and Paul Unks have ensured that those ceremonies will never be forgotten by the North American Indian, or by the world.
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