Inside Christopher Cardozo’s Edward S. Curtis Art Collection

Photography provided by Wing Ta

Forty years is a long time to devote to another person. A commitment of that intensity would be difficult to sustain if the relationship didn’t offer substantial rewards. Christopher Cardozo, who has dedicated the past four decades to collecting and disseminating the work of celebrated Wisconsin son Edward S. Curtis, has no doubt that the benefits he has reaped have more than repaid his efforts.

“Collecting Curtis’s work has profoundly informed my life,” notes Cardozo, surrounded by Curtis photographs in his Minneapolis home near Lake of the Isles. “It’s been a window and a mirror. It has helped me understand so many things about myself and about the world.”

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

Cardozo’s unwavering commitment to Curtis parallels the famed photographer and ethnologist’s own dogged determination during the first 30 years of the 20th century to create a record of native North Americans in photographs and words. The resulting 20-volume set of The North American Indian stands as a landmark achievement in the arenas of photography, publishing and ethnographical research.

The life trajectories of Curtis, who is the subject of several sesquicentennial celebrations this year, and Cardozo, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, have intersected in surprising ways. Both had their first significant exposure to photography as teens in St. Paul, Curtis as an apprentice in a portrait studio and Cardozo as a high-school student. And both had transformative experiences in faraway places among native peoples.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

Curtis’s watershed experience happened the summer of 1900, when he accompanied prominent anthropologist George Bird Grinnell on an expedition to Montana. There, living among the Blackfoot people, he witnessed one of the last great enactments of the sun dance ceremony before it was outlawed by the federal government. Because Grinnell had earned the trust of the Blackfoot people over the course of 20 seasons of fieldwork, they were willing to talk with Curtis about their personal histories and their spiritual beliefs and practices.

Although by this time Curtis had established a successful portrait studio in Seattle, he hit the road again soon after returning from Montana, this time on a self-financed trip to Arizona to photograph the Navajo and Hopi peoples. After that, Cardozo explains, Curtis “never turned back. That became his life, his passion.”

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

For Cardozo’s part, soon after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a BFA in photography and film, he drove to Mexico to help a professor make a film. The instructor ultimately chose not to pursue the project, but he did suggest Cardozo explore a tiny village high in the Sierra Madre mountains of Oaxaca. He ended up spending almost six months there, taking photographs, shooting film and making sound recordings.

“It was probably the most incredible experience I had ever had in my life,” says Cardozo. “Most of the people thought they lived on an island. There was no electricity. There was very little contact with the outside world. Most of them had never heard of the United States.” Because the native people spoke an obscure, unwritten dialect, Cardozo would go for days without speaking to anyone. That left him free to observe and to film what he observed.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

Cardozo’s first fateful Curtis encounter came in 1972, a day or two after returning from his Mexican sojourn. He stopped off in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to visit a friend and fellow photographer and to show her the prints he had made of his photos from the Oaxacan village. She insisted he see the work of Edward S. Curtis, which had just become available for the first time in a contemporary book. When Cardozo laid eyes on the tome, he felt “a shock of recognition” at seeing photography so reminiscent of what he had just shot.

Back on the road to Minnesota, Cardozo made another stop in Boulder, Colorado, to see more friends, including a Native American art dealer from St. Paul. When Cardozo showed him his newly acquired book, the art dealer informed him that a group that had recently purchased the mother lode of Curtis archives was supplying a small gallery right there in town. The gallery turned out to have several photogravures intended to go into volumes of The North American Indian. After some internal debate, Cardozo ended up buying two of them for $35 apiece.

Photography by Wing Ta

“That was the start of it,” he says, reflecting on his first steps along the Curtis trail. Having worked for a few months and saved a few thousand dollars, Cardozo spent it all on Curtis prints. In order to recoup some of his investment, he sold some prints, establishing the strategy he pursued for the next several decades as he built what is widely acknowledged to be the broadest Curtis collection in the world.

Although Cardozo takes great pleasure in owning such a rich cache of Curtis’s work, he also gains great satisfaction from sharing that work with others. Over the years, he has published books about Curtis, mounted international exhibitions of his photography, printed and sold contemporary photography made from his negatives, and even operated a gallery devoted to him. “I feel a really strong moral obligation to bring his work to the world,” says Cardozo. “It transcends Curtis; it transcends native people. If you look at the best of his work, it is really a profoundly human story.”

This article is from the Artful Living archives. It first appeared in our autumn 2013 issue.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

The Interview: Art Collector Christopher Cardozo


Photography by Wing Ta

Minneapolis art collector Christopher Cardozo is considered the foremost authority on famed photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis. He has spent the past four decades collecting his work, with an emphasis on sharing it with the world. This year, which marks the 150th anniversary of Curtis’s birth, Cardozo has been busy re-creating the ethnologist’s famed book series and repatriating his works to tribal groups and individuals. We sat down with him to talk about his life’s work, his legacy and more.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

This is a big year for Edward S. Curtis fans as it marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. What does this milestone mean to you?

Any big milestone like this grabs people’s attention. For me, it is this amazing opportunity to engage all kinds of people and institutions, because when people hear 150, they just naturally want to know more and get more involved. When I think about my personal mission, it’s really about bringing this incredible body of work that was co-created by Edward Curtis and 10,000 Native people to new and different audiences in new and different ways on a global scale. The 150th has allowed us to engage all kinds of people, and this autumn in the Twin Cities, we’re bringing in a filmmaker and a musician, we’re doing exhibitions, and we’ll probably be doing symposia. So it’s this amazing opportunity to share my life’s work.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

To commemorate, you’re republishing his 20-volume series, The North American Indian. That must have been quite the undertaking.

We consider the project a limited-edition re-creation. It’s not simply a republication or a reprint, because we’ve redone so much. All the content is the same, but the presentation is quite different. And everything is hand interleaved, so we had to create more than 200,000 photographs, one sheet at a time. Every one of them had to be hand interleaved and top-edge gilded.

I think we’ve probably gotten advice from 70 or 80 different individuals, from librarians to paper manufacturers to people who work with archival inks. We’ve had a core team of 12 people throughout most of that project. It’s been four years and counting. I think we’re up to around 40,000 hours. As I’ve said to a lot of people, I’m glad I didn’t know what it was really going to entail, because there is a chance I would not have undertaken it.

We found that there were Native words for which there were no characters, so we had to invent digital typeface. Also, we were trying to use an optical character reader, but because the original text is letterpress printed — so oftentimes the characters are broken or the inking isn’t right — and because there were many words that don’t exist in English, it almost seems like we would have been better off to just sit there and do it one at a time. Just to give you one example, my proofreading team had to proofread two and a half million words nine different times.

We only have six of the set of 75 left. We’ve also got 11 on hold for a foundation that is considering gifting them to tribal colleges. Harvard, the Morgan Library and the University of California, Berkeley have all subscribed. Interestingly, there’s a medical center in Portland, Oregon, that subscribed. I called the director and said, “I’m really happy you’re subscribing, but why does a medical clinic want this?”

He explained that they found that until their patients heal spiritually and emotionally, they can’t heal physically. So they have made the books available to patients. We were so moved by this that we created a portfolio of about 15 prints of some of the different tribal groups that are serviced by the clinic, which they’ve put up on the walls. We found people who work for the clinic who had ancestors that Curtis photographed, and we have already sent them photographs of their ancestors. It’s just been amazing.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

You’re also repatriating 10,000 Curtis prints to tribal colleges, cultural centers and individuals. What prompted that decision?

I’ve worked with a Native American medicine woman for 15 years, and she has been very instrumental in my life in terms of healing and spiritual work. She has also connected me to my spirit guides, including Red Plume, who helped me understand that if I was going to continue to be the steward of this collection that I had a profound moral/ethical obligation to bring this work back to Native people, because that was part of the critical agreement that Curtis and the Native people made.

When I talk about co-creation, people often ask, “Why were they so actively participating?” It was because they wanted a preserved record for the world at large but particularly for their descendants so that 50, 100 years later, their descendants would know who they were, what they looked like, what they believed in. I realized I wanted to continue to be the steward and that I should maintain that obligation.

So then I wondered, “Well, how many people participated?” I looked through the 20 volumes, 20 portfolios and some other archival material and realized I could identify almost 5,000 people just from that material — and I knew that there were somewhere between seven and 10 times more negatives that had been lost or destroyed. So 10,000 became a really conservative estimate, and I thought, “If 10,000 people helped Curtis create this, we will repatriate 10,000 photographs.”

Photography by Christopher Cardozo

You’ve described collecting Curtis’s works as your soul’s purpose. Can you talk more about that?

When I first started out, right after coming back from Mexico, I was a BFA graduate from the University of Minnesota, a photographer and a filmmaker. When I first saw Curtis’s prints, it was all about these beautiful objects, and it really was a pretty straightforward collecting impulse. But what’s happened over the years, through many different experiences with Native people and the medicine woman I mentioned, is that I’ve understood what important cultural, emotional and spiritual legacy this all is. And I began wondering, “Why am I here? Why am I on this earth? What can I contribute?”

We’ve sent exhibitions to 40 countries. And when we saw the impact in South Africa and Papua New Guinea irrespective of language, age, culture and socioeconomic background, I got it more than ever. There’s something really deep about this work. It’s like Shakespeare or da Vinci, who tapped into something really essential and really deep, which is why their work is still alive today — alive in the sense that people are still interested. Here we are, more than a hundred years after Curtis started creating his work, and people still love looking at it. It’s obviously got some really deep significance.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

How does Curtis’s work factor into the modern-day discussion about the exotic other?

What one needs to do to intelligently understand and interpret Curtis’s work is to make the distinction between the artistic work and the purely ethnographic work — the two and a half million words, the sound recordings, the transcriptions of language and music. The beautiful photographs that tend to get reproduced in books represent Curtis’s artistic output. And in the very beginning of this whole 20-volume set of works, he states very clearly that the photographs are not intended to be ethnographic work and that they are intended to be art. So you can’t look at it in ethnographic or anthropological terms, because it wasn’t intended for that; the other part of the books were.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

How do you know with such certainty that Curtis’s works were co-created and not something more voyeuristic or exploitative? 

Well, I think there are two different answers here. The first one is that Curtis, like anyone else, was a person of his time. This was 120 years ago, so there’s no way that he could have the same ethics, the same understanding as we have today. So he did what he did within the framework of what he could understand.

Regarding the co-creation, I think the simplest answer is all one has to do is look at the photographs. I defy you to tell me that these individuals didn’t want to be very actively involved in creating these photographs. Many of them were not people who were going to be manipulated. It’s also very condescending to say, “Oh, he just came in and exploited them.” That makes them passive pawns. A number of Native friends of mine find it very condescending that people would call their ancestors passive pawns who didn’t have agency to decide if they would participate.

When you look at almost all photographs of American Indians from this period or earlier, there’s very little connection between the person being photographed and the photographer; the Native people tend to be distant, oftentimes not looking at the camera. If they are, there’s never that sense of connection, intimacy, authenticity and vulnerability that Curtis and his co-creators achieved.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

Was Curtis’s work an act of bravery?

To a degree. I think initially Curtis was doing it for selfish ends — to win contests, to build his portfolio. But, he truly loved Native American people and how they lived, and he made great sacrifices. He was in some life-and-death situations yet he continued to go. He stopped taking his family after one incident when they were all endangered. Yes, there was a certain amount of bravery, and ultimately, he gave up everything. He had just become really successful as the preeminent society photographer of the Pacific Northwest, photographing Mr. Boeing and the like. He was highly respected and was making a very good living, and ultimately he gave up all that to do this work. I think that requires a certain amount of bravery as well as passion and dedication.

Photography provided by Christopher Cardozo

What do you want your legacy to be?

I don’t like thinking in those terms, because it sounds so ego-driven, but I think to have accumulated this work and preserved the basic integrity of it for future generations and also to have helped people have a much deeper understanding of the work. Again, I call it beauty, heart and spirit, or sacred legacy. And, to me, it is fundamentally healing work. If there’s one thing that has tied it all together, it’s healing, and getting more people attuned to that is by far my proudest achievement.

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