About Mountain Hawk

Mountain Hawk, founded in 1999, is the title of Unks’ fine art business which is a short form of his Native given name, “Little Mountain Hawk”.

In 1997, Unks discovered a beautiful complete 20-volume set of Curtis’s original photographs that have been stored in Denver University’s vault since 1938. Upon viewing these well preserved prints, he realized they were the best examples of Curtis’s work he had ever seen after studying and collecting his work since 1971 when he was a photojournalism student at the University of Missouri. Unks was inspired to reintroduce Curtis’s work as high quality genuine prints, the same as Curtis made, and better than the re-strikes, fakes and many other “schlocky” reproductions that appear on the market today. A year later, the University granted Paul exclusive rights to the entire Curtis collection. It took 7 years to learn the old traditional painstaking craft of photogravure plate and print making, and an additional 3 years to learn the gold tone glass plate technique that Curtis used over 100 years ago. Because it is such a painstaking, laborious and expensive process, there are only a handful of photogravure plate and print makers in the world today. It is a beautiful, almost lost, rare art form.

Mountain Hawk is the only master printer today making Intaglio Plates and Photogravures of Curtis’s original photographs. He has restored Curtis’ original photographic detail to contemporary hand-made plates and prints in a limited numbered edition, in the same manner Curtis, along with his master plate and print maker, John Andrew did over a hundred years ago. Each plate and print is carefully hand crafted with meticulous attention to detail in order to match, and in some ways, enhance the magical sense of light and depth seen in Curtis’s best vintage originals. Inspired by the beauty of Curtis’s well preserved originals at Denver University, Paul developed a new mission: To produce real prints of high quality at Curtis’s artistic standard, and to authentically complete the second half of his planned edition which Curtis wasn’t able to do in his lifetime; and to respectfully keep the Native Americans’ history and memory alive. In short, to make genuine prints of value, of which Curtis would approve.

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Unks is also the only one making custom sized Gold Tones and Platinum Tones of Curtis’s original images with custom framing options to suit people’s particular requirements. Mountain Hawk is committed to producing the highest quality collectible archival prints, without compromise, of the most compelling and enduring images of Native America. Each photogravure is faithful to Curtis’ intention, complete with the original text, including title, credits and plate number using the correct fonts, and placed precisely in the parchment border of the 100% cotton rag or tissue paper to achieve a thoroughly authentic finish.

Ranging from the moving portraits to beautiful landscapes, the Mountain Hawk collection includes 100 of the most sought after Curtis images representing the Southwest, Plains and Northwest Tribal Nations, portraying the spectrum of Indian life at the peak of their 19th century culture.

Within Paul’s projects are also an ingrained sense of responsibility, repatriating (giving back) photographs of relatives and culture to Native American individuals, families, and tribal groups. This duty includes gathering oral history from Native Americans about their relatives and culture and finding out the names of those people Curtis photographed, who were only assigned generic titles to their photographs at the time.

“The artist lived and worked among the Native Americans for thirty years. He respected and honored the Indians. Fearing they were a vanishing race, he worked hard to preserve an awe inspiring visual and written record. Because of Curtis’ vision, talent, and dedication, we have the privilege of being able to see them as they once were.”

– Paul Unks, December, 1997

What makes Paul’s Work Unique?

Hand-made Photogravure Plates and Prints,  Plus Custom Sized Gold Tones and Framing
The Blanket Weaver gold tone image, sm

There are only a handful of master printers in the world today who make hand-made photogravure plates and prints. Mountain Hawk, in cooperation with Denver University, is the only printer producing Curtis’ original photographs as he did, as intaglio photogravures, each archival print individually hand-made, one at a time, restoring Curtis’ original fine photographic detail that had previously been unattainable. Using this classic traditional method, Mountain Hawk is faithfully and authentically completing the edition Curtis started but wasn’t able to finish in his lifetime.
Paul’s journey to creating high quality, consistent, and relevant Edward Curtis prints was not without struggle, hard work, and conscious persistence. After seven years of copious trial and error, refinancing his home twice, and learning from the master printers in England, Germany, and Italy, he finally learned how to put all the pieces together. Success meant creating plates and prints that far exceeded the old restrikes from the old worn plates and rivaled the best-conditioned vintage prints at a better price than either.  (Verbatim to statement right above)


Paul Unks Profile

As a kid growing up in Missouri, Paul always had a knack for his creative spirit, and a love for Native American culture. Like Curtis, he was given his first camera by his father back in the sixties.  He fondly remembers spending time with his father in their makeshift darkroom in their basement, making black and white prints using a coffee can as an enlarger.  Immediately he fell in love with the human-driven aspect of black and white photography. The rudimentary nature gave him a direct connection that he found more revealing of humanity than color.  When he went to the University of Missouri in 1970, he was presented with opportunities to learn from noted photographic scholars such as
Dr. Art Terry, former Editor in Chief of National Geographic, and Angus McDougall who worked with Ansel Adams and taught for a decade at Missouri preceding his induction into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame. It was during these yearsPaul first discovered the work of Edward Curtis.  His compassion for Native Americans and their unfair treatment drove through Americanized ideologies such as “Manifest Destiny”, gave him a personal stake in documenting and preserving the culture of Native Americans through art and print.  Upon seeing Curtis’ work, he realized he had stumbled upon a “perfect storm” of loves and labors in the combination of photography, history, art, and culture. Even though Paul had been studying Curtis’ work since 1971, he had not yet become aware of one his most powerful and direct connections to Curtis’ remaining works.


Discovering Curtis’ Original Prints at Denver University

Arikara Girl gold image, sm         Bear's Belly gold tone image, sm        Joseph Nez Perce gold image, sm

Years later teaching a class at the University of Denver, one his students came up to him after a class and asked about his passions and hobbies.  Upon explaining his artwork and prints related to Edward Curtis and the Native American culture, the student candidly explained to him, “Well, you know we have some of Curtis’ photographs in the Special Collections Vault here on campus at the Penrose Library.” He remembers the revelation of realizing that even after having taught at the university for years he had just become aware of the incredible history that was literally just below his feet.  After months of waiting to be able to access the vaulted archives in the library’s basement,  he was in disbelief as he immediately saw the complete collection of all 20 folios and 20 books of “The American Indian”, in their original leather, with gold leaf, on Japanese tissue paper which was  indicative of Curtis’ highest quality works. Upon the doors being closed behind him and left alone with the works, he was captivated by the beauty of the original prints which took him back in time to a place that will never exist again.  It was an era of a beautiful culture, and people, that even at the time the photographs were taken, had begun to to the forced conformity of white culture and laws. Paul urged the university to grant him permission to faithfully reissue these historic and beautiful prints, which today are estimated to be valued at upwards of 2.5 million dollars. After a year of negotiation with school officials, the university finally agreed to give Paul exclusive rights to the set of Curtis originals to produce a limited edition of 250 in order to authentically complete the second half of what Curtis originally planned.

Standing Out From other prints, or Quality, or Print Quality, or Quality of Prints

Some printmakers still use old worn plates which have lost the detail they once had in the days when Jon Andrew was Curtis’ plate and printmaker in Boston.  Some also use the wrong inks and papers causing those re-strike prints to look not only a bit soft or blurry, but also flat, lacking the proper sense of light and depth.  At Mountain Hawk, Paul is faithfully completing the balance of Curtis’ original intended edition using the proper inks and paper. Paul often shows people restrikes from old worn out plates to demonstrate instances where the wrong inks were used.  Only then can they clearly see the differences between those prints and Mountain Hawk’s newly restored plates that have the proper sense of light, depth, and detail that Curtis wanted.

Unfortunately, Curtis’ original glass plate negatives were broken by his daughter Beth in order to spite her mother who had received them as part of the divorce settlement. The beautifully conditioned gravures at Denver University one of the best remaining sources in the world. The process begins with shooting with large high resolution 16″x20″ film.  From these large high quality films, Paul is able to make finely etched plates and prints, thus  restoring and preserving Curtis’ original detail, as well as his wonderful sense of light and depth.

Following this success, Paul learned to make striking Gold Tones, and then got an inspiring vision to integrate Curtis’ traditional sepia tone photogravures with contemporary, colorful abstract forms that combine old and new images of Native America. Thus was born the original one-of-a-kind multi-media hand-made prints that constitute the groundbreaking “Ancestral Passage” series that connect the past with the present.