About Paul Unks, founder and owner of Mountain Hawk
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved nature and art, particularly photography. We had a subscription to National Geographic. I looked forward to its arrival as I marveled at the wonderful photographs that told stories about people and nature around the world. I also have long standing interest and respect for the Native Americans, and their culture. Like many young children, I pretended to be an Indian while playing, but with me, it went a little further. I learned to make my own bow and arrows including the fletching and string, and I learned to hunt with them. We enjoyed camping and canoeing. I wanted to experience the Indian way of life, staying close to nature.
My father gave me my first camera. Immediately, I loved taking pictures, eager to see how they would come out. My dad and I made black and white photographs in our make shift basement darkroom using an enlarger we fashioned out of a coffee can. It was fun to see what magic we could create.
When I went to college at the University of Missouri, I took photojournalism classes. I was in seventh heaven. I had access to some great darkroom equipment, as well as terrific teachers like Dr. Art Terry, former Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine and Angus McDougal who worked with Ansel Adams. They were tough critics and taught me a lot about composition, light and technique. It was during this time in the early 1970’s that I discovered the work of Edward Curtis. Here was an integration of my two passions; the Native Americans and photography. It ignited something in me that has never died. I started collecting my favorite Curtis photographs. At first all I could afford were some posters, then later, some restrikes from the old rediscovered plates, and then very fortunate to acquire a few vintage strikes, made by the master printer himself, John Andrew, Curtis’ plate and print maker back at the turn of the 19th century. I loved black and white photography, but love these rich and historic sepia toned images even more.
I have guest lectured at the University of Denver since 1985. After a class one night in 1995, one of the students told me there were some Edward Curtis photographs in the library. Three months later I went to see the special collections curator, Steve Fisher who confirmed they did indeed have some Curtis photogravures. He said they were too busy and that I should come back during Christmas break when he would have time to take me into the rare books vault. So I went back, another three months later, at semester break, and he took me to the vault. He pushed the buttons on the combination lock and the doors slid apart sideways to open. I peered into the back shelves and was amazed to see that they didn’t have just some of Curtis’ work, but a complete set of the North American Indian, his Magnus opus. Resting there on the shelves were all 20 books accompanied by the corresponding 20 large folios, all bound in Moroccan leather with gold leaf. “How long have these been here?” I asked. The curator said, “Since 1938”. He asked me what I would like to look at first. I said, “Volume number one, the Navaho and the Apache”. He pulled it off the shelf and we went to the viewing room. I put on the white cotton gloves as the curator left the room locking the door behind him. I opened the folio to begin taking out the photogravures, one at a time, starting with plate number 1, The Vanishing Race, followed by all the others. The people, the landscapes, the portraits, all had a palpable presence. Tears came to my eyes. They were beautiful, the best examples of Curtis’ work I had ever seen. All printed on the luminous Japanese tissue and in mint condition. I was astounded. Right under my nose, all these years, was a treasure trove of our unique American history, a sacred legacy.
Aware that Curtis died poor and under-appreciated, with only half of his originally planned edition published, I was compelled to try to pick up where he and John Andrew left off. I had a vision of making a limited edition of 250 authentically hand-made photogravures, at his artistic standards, in order to faithfully complete his edition of 500. I also wanted to make these beautiful historic prints available to more people who didn’t want to spend $35,000 – $75,000 each for some of their most desired vintage gravures. Additionally, I wanted to give back to the Indians by offering them these precious images of their ancestors, and by donating part of the proceeds to support Native American causes such as scholarships and legal battles they still have in their effort to protect and regain lands promised to them in many broken treaties. In order for this to happen I needed permission from the University. A year later, I was blessed by being awarded exclusive rights to the entire Edward Curtis’ collection of original photographs of the Native Americans. Thus Mountain Hawk began.
Little did I know at the time, that I would have to refinance our house twice; once to insure things were being done legally and ethically by checking with Curtis’ surviving family members and other sources, and then the extensive research and development phase required to make authentic intaglio photogravures and Gold Tones to meet Curtis’ exacting artistic standards. I realized I needed help learning this 1800’s technique. I found a few printers in the United States who were able to be of some help, but wound up getting mentoring from the best printers in England, Germany and Italy who have mastered this old technique, most notably Lothar Osterburg and Deli Sociolotto. It took seven years to learn to make proper photogravure plates and prints, and ten years to make Gold Tones on par with Curtis’ best vintage work. While I admit to seeing vicariously through Curtis eyes, I do not pretend to be stepping into Curtis’ shoes. He was the preeminent photographer of the 19th century. Rather, we are stepping into the shoes of John Andrew, becoming Curtis’ new master plate and print maker.