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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.