Vincent Isturis

Capturing Southeast life on film

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2001

Vincent Isturis Sr. always told his children, "A good photographer never leaves the house without a camera."

"I remember once about 1969 near Auke Lake, he had my sister Ginny pull over, jumped out of the car, and chased a black bear down the road," said daughter Cynthia Bradley, now of Sitka.

As an amateur photographer, Isturis left behind a treasure trove of pictures of life in Juneau and other parts of Southeast after he died in the late 1980s at age 79. He also left a legacy of images of Filipino life in Juneau in the 1930s and '40s. Some photos were rediscovered during renovation of an old Gastineau Avenue miners' cottage into a bed-and-breakfast. Others were lovingly preserved by family members.


Fourth float: Sophie Albealde (far right), Irene Albealde and Margaret Marcado ride on the Filipino Community float in Juneau's Fourth of July parade in 1949. The women's gowns have traditional Filipino-style sleeves.

Born in the Philippines in 1908, Isturis came to Alaska in 1925, moving to Juneau in 1929. He worked as an ore sorter at the Alaska-Juneau gold mine in the 1930s, continuing there until the huge hard-rock mining complex shut down in 1944. He then became a troller who sold fish to canneries around Southeast, often using Excursion Inlet where his wife Betty grew up, as his base of operations, said brother Rudy Isturis. Later Vincent became custodian of state office buildings downtown and worked his way up to custodial foreman, courting friendships with Gov. Bill Egan and other state dignitaries.

In his youth, Isturis focused his lens on his Filipino friends in their Sunday best, posed with shiny new cars, musical instruments or at Mendenhall Glacier - photos intended for the folks back home.

After his marriage, he and Betty were instrumental in forming the Filipino Community Organization. For decades, he documented the gatherings of that organization. A favorite event was Rizal, a New Year's Eve holiday celebrating executed Philippine patriot Jose Rizal with a banquet and formal dance. Also popular were intricate floral floats and decorated bicycles in Fourth of July parades, the Setoy Swingsters (a musical group of the 1920s), bowling teams, the Junior Trout Derby, Armed Forces Days, and a civic and social group called Caballeros de Dimos-Alang. Isturis took photos of community picnics, friends' anniversaries and birthdays, and activities within the Catholic diocese, including First Communion rites and classes at St. Ann's School. He never charged a fee, as far as his daughter Ginny Johns of Juneau knows.


Cannery row: Above, cannery workers Betty Isturis (left), Irene Sarabia Lampe, and Lucille Willis pause during a break at the Excursion Inlet fish processors in about 1944.

These were black and white photos, which Isturis developed himself, many in an 8-by-10-inch format or larger. He hand-tinted some of them, which he gave as gifts to friends. One image that hangs in many local households shows the old, curving Auke Creek Bridge, tinted yellow, with its reflection in the water in the foreground, and Auke Lake in the background.

"There are lots of photos of me, because I was the first born. He recorded all of our growing up, and all of the grandchildren," Johns said.

Her father "loved children, and would make faces to make them laugh. I caught some of that with my movie camera," Bradley said.

Isturis printed some of his black and white photos as holiday greetings.

"He made all his own Christmas cards using photos and stickers. People looked forward to them because he really worked on each one," Johns said.

In the 1950s, Isturis contracted tuberculosis and recuperated at a sanitarium in Seward. While there, he learned calligraphy, which he began using to title or label his photos. His calligraphy was so good he was sometimes asked to inscribe place cards for banquets, Johns said.


Unwieldy catch: Right, a shark is hoisted at Pelican Cold Storage. Vincent Isturis fished in this area after the Alaska-Juneau mine closed in 1944.

In the 1950s and '60s, Isturis produced mostly slides and snapshots in color. He documented his large extended family's life, from sledding outings on hills at the edge of Mendenhall Lake to the opening day of duck season and good catches during fishing season.

"I think I take pictures of my husband's fish because I saw my Dad doing that," Johns said with a laugh.

Isturis also took many photos of Excursion Inlet Cannery, 38 miles northwest of Juneau.

"We went there every summer," Johns said. "Mother worked at the cannery from June to when school started, often with my Aunt Janie. That lasted until I was a freshman in high school (about 1963)."

Janie Eldemar worked with Betty Isturis at the salmon cannery. Betty began working at the cannery at age 15, about 1939, Eldemar said. "She never finished school. They used to get out of school in March and work there until October or November. They were working there when there was a German prisoner of war camp there."

Isturis left 31 immediate descendants in Alaska, including eight children: Vincent Jr. (deceased); Kathy (deceased); Johns, an administrative assistant for the counseling department at Juneau-Douglas High School; Jim Isturis, an Alaska Airlines ramp service employee who carves masks and rattles in his spare time; Bradley of Sitka, a homemaker who paints and carves; Joe Isturis, training coordinator for Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp 2; Gary, an employee of Alaska Seafoods; and Beverly Doyle, an instruction aide at Auke Bay Elementary School.


Family holiday: Betty Isturis, Vincent's wife, daughters Cathy, about 2 1/2, and Virginia, about 4, celebrate Christmas in about 1952 in what is now known as The Green House Private Cottage on Gastineau Avenue.

Johns has collected some of her father's photos into thematic albums, but others remain in boxes and trunks. "A project of mine has always been to contact somebody at the archives and save this," she said.

Some were used by Anchorage activist Thelma Bucholdt for her book, "Filipinos in Alaska, 1788-1958." Three of Isturis' photos also have been enlarged to 40 by 60 inches, and adorn the walls at Timberwolf gift shop, 406 South Franklin St. One is of a destroyer, another is of the old city float and the third is of the old bridge at Auke Lake.

In her living room, Johns keeps a color photo of her father taken in his retirement, crouched in shrubbery with his camera.

"This is how we remember him," she said. "He always had his camera in his hand. He just took pictures of everything."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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