As art mysteries go, it might not rank up there with the identity of Johannes Vermeer’s model for his 1665 painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
Still, determining the identity of the young man in an iconic photograph of a young Northwest cannery worker holding a huge salmon — recently memorialized in a sculpture on the Gig Harbor waterfront — is a great mystery.
“That would make the perfect title, ‘The Great Mystery,’” sculptor Douglas Granum said. “The photo was taken 106 years ago, and we still don’t know who the young man was.
“But somebody must know.”
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Granum, whose bronze work was installed in July in front of the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, modeled it after a classic photo shot by legendary Northwest photographer Asahel Curtis. A friend of Granum’s showed him the photo as it hung in the Tacoma waterfront restaurant Katy Downs.
Granum loved the photo and identified with it instantly.
“I have a photo taken of me when I was about 20 that’s very similar. I love fishing, and I was part of that world for a while, working in Alaska,” Granum said. “I identify with the fish, too. There’s nothing like bringing in a big salmon. When I saw Curtis’ photo, I immediately thought of the shot taken of me.
“There’s a quality to the pose that everyone who’s ever caught a big fish — in this case a really big fish — can identify with. If you catch one, what do you do?
“You hold it up and get a picture taken with it.”
Curtis revealed little more about the photograph than the date he took it — Aug. 21, 1909 —and that it was taken in Bellingham. The salmon, he said, weighed 80 pounds.
Granum isn’t the only one wondering who the fisherman was.
“The question we’re asked most by visitors who see the bronze is, ‘Did the artist base it on someone in real life or was it a figment of his imagination?’” said Harbor History Museum manager Michelle Paulus.
“They’re intrigued. The statue has visitor engagement up. It gets them wondering and asking questions. They love taking pictures of themselves with it.”
Granum, an artist who lives in Southworth, has works all around Tacoma and the Northwest.
There’s the eye-catching “Locomotive Monument” along A Street, a block north of the Tacoma Art Museum, and “The Writing Stone” in the Theater District.
His art also can be found at Pacific Lutheran University, Charles Wright Academy and other Pierce County locations.
“I was born in North Dakota, and my father was a coal miner,” Granum said. “When World War II came, we moved to the Southworth area, and my father went to work in the shipyards.”
Granum graduated from South Kitsap High School, then the University of Washington. While in college, he earned summer money fishing in Alaska.
“The one thing I learned in the fishing industry was, it wasn’t an easy life,” he said.
The photo Curtis took captured that, and Granum wanted to use every detail the photo offered. In those, he thinks, could be small clues to the model’s identity.
“He looks to be 25 to 27 years old. There’s a notch out of his right ear. It may have been from a hook, from a bar fight,” Granum said. “You look at his right hand, the thumb is broken, and he has it outside the glove and wrapped.
“His shirt is worn, tattered. He’s wearing the outfit of a cannery worker, though a lot of fishermen would work canneries, too.
“We have no idea who he is, but that photograph, and now the bronze, make him as much an icon as a Greek statue.”
Granum says the key to solving the mystery lies with a family somewhere in the Northwest.
“He could have come from Bellingham or Vancouver, Seattle or Everett,” Granum said. “He may have worked anywhere in the Northwest, and that photo may have hung on the wall of his family for generations now.
“Someone knows him.
“I’d love to take his family to the bronze and show it to them,” Granum said. “Heck, I’d love to have them over to the house for dinner. I want to know about this man, his life. I’d love to have the mystery solved.”