A Guest Post: Preserving the Work of a Photographer Who Documented Native Americans

This remarkable tribute is by Mark Schwartz, an attorney from Bryn Mawr PA. It is a remarkable tribute to the work and memory of a photographer friend, Christopher Cardozo, who in turn had made a career of preserving and paying tribute to the work of an earlier pioneering photographer-ethnographer. It was so striking i am posting it here, with Schwartz’s permission:

Christopher Cardozo: Foremost Authority on American Indian Ethnographer and Photographer Edward S. Curtis, died on February 21, 2021 in Minneapolis at age 72

Despite a family lineage in the law going back to Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Christopher Cardozo serendipitously took a very different path, candidly observing  that “I would probably be a walking malpractice suit”.

Born February 27, 1948, after graduating with a degree in photography and film from the University of Minnesota, a professor invited him to Oaxaca, Mexico to help make a film.  After taking five months to save up to buy a 10-year-old VW Beetle, camera lenses and film, Cardozo made the trek across the continent,  finally arriving only to be informed that his professor had  decided not to make the film. The curt apology was,  “I should have written.”

Notwithstanding, Cardozo stayed on in the remote Mexican village of  San Andres Chicahuzxla, Oaxaca, Mexico.

He spent six sometimes dangerous months in 1972 documenting a place and people who were losing their way. Chris’ sepia-toned images of the villagers prompted a friend to observe that his photos were remarkably similar to Edward Curtis’ work.

Christopher Cardozo with a portrait

His curiosity piqued, Cardozo furiously studied, acquired, exhibited and  replicated Curtis’ work. This became the making of a career spanning more than fifty years.

He thus became the foremost authority on Curtis. Cardozo came to realize,  “I was led to this. This was my soul’s purpose. Why I ended up on Earth at this particular time was to make this  work available to people.”

Edward Curtis’s exposure to Native American culture came some seventy years earlier than Cardozo’s parallel experience.   In the summer of 1900 , Curtis (1868-1952) witnessed one of the last performances of the  Blackfoot Indian Tribe’s “Sun Dance” ceremony. Ushered in to the lives of Native Americans , Edward Sheriff Curtis wrote “It’s such a big dream. I can’t see it all.” This became Cardozo’s catch phrase in sharing and perpetuating Curtis’ dream of preserving the history and legacy of these magnificent people.

Curtis had left a promising career as a society photographer to photograph Native Americans in their home lands. He spent three decades at this.

Smithsonian Magazine said:

At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis worked in the belief that he was in a desperate race against time to document, with film, sound and scholarship, the North American Indian before white expansion and the federal government destroyed what remained of their natives’ way of life.  For thirty years, with the backing of men like J. Pierpont Morgan and former president Theodore Roosevelt, but at great expense to his family life and his health, Curtis lived among dozens of native tribes, devoting his life to his calling.

Over the course of thirty years Curtis had compiled a photo-ethnographic study: The North American Indian. In 1911 the New York Herald characterized it as the most gigantic undertaking since the publication of the King James Edition of the Bible.

Consisting of  twenty leather-bound volumes,  twenty portfolios containing more than 2,200 original photogravures, and  4,000 pages of anthropological text. His attention to detail included transcriptions of tribal language and music,  and the work involved the active participation of  over 10,000 Native Americans.

Finalized in 1930, in the depth of the Great Depression, less than three hundred sets were actually produced with only two hundred actually sold. This published work was in addition to some  45,000 to 50,000 negatives (many on glass) , ten thousand wax cylinders of ceremonial music and language recordings, and motion picture footage, all taken by Curtis.

The magnum opus completed, having driven himself to the limit, Curtis lost everything,  suffering a physical and nervous breakdown in 1930. He died in 1952 essentially unknown and penniless.

“Northern Plains Brave 1905,” a portrait by Edward Curtis.

It was in the seventies, in large part owing to Cardozo’s activities, that Curtis’ work enjoyed a resurgence.

Summing up his own contribution, Cardozo told the Minneapolis Star & Tribune (12/18/18),

“I believe I was instrumental in changing the conversation about Curtis. He’d been thought of as an ethnographer….. But I got people to see his work as the artistic achievement that it was. The platinum prints, the gold tones, the cyanographs—they leave me speechless at times.”

Cardozo is the author of nine monographs on Edward Curtis, and has created and curated one-person Curtis exhibitions that have been seen in nearly one hundred venues in over forty countries, and on every continent, but Antarctica. Why? He summed up his vision in a Forbes interview:

Edward Curtis created the most valuable and sought-after set of rare books in US history and left the world a legacy of inestimable importance. It is a deeply human story which, at its essence, is imbued with beauty, heart, and spirit. I believe that in no small part, this is why these iconic images have endured for over a century. It also helps explain why Curtis is the most widely collected photographer in the 170 year history of the medium, and why his photographs have been exhibited to rave reviews all over the world, from Papua, New Guinea to Paris.

Having collected Curtis’s artwork for decades, Cardozo created the world’s largest and most broad-ranging Curtis collection. His personal collection has been exhibited in major museums internationally, and was the subject of his widely heralded monograph on Curtis: Sacred Legacy; Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, and a new monograph on his personal collection titled Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, in which Cardozo said

“Curtis’ work changed the way our nation viewed Native Americans and generated a broad-ranging dialogue for greater compassion, understanding, and inclusion. For more than a century, his images have moved and inspired diverse audiences, transcending economic, cultural, social, educational , and national boundaries. He accomplished this at a time when Native Americans were commonly viewed with disdain or hatred and some individuals were still actively advocating for the extinction of all Native peoples on the North American continent. Contributing to that work was Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich who wrote that Curtis’ images of women were “ as disquieting as they are profoundly beautiful.”

With the few remaining 160 sets of Curtis “The North American Indian”  financially and physically out of reach  of new generations of  scholars and students, Cardozo undertook the three-year painstaking task of artisan republication of  the 20-volume work and accompanying portfolios, so as to coincide with the 2018 sesquicentennial of Curtis’ birth.

With the republication accomplished, Cardozo, long bothered by the fact that he was a white man owning so much of Native America’s legacy, launched the “10,000 Print Repatriation Project”  to connect the descendants of those photographed with their ancestors’ images.

As the founder of Cardozo Fine Art in Minneapolis, he has pioneered techniques for preserving and revitalizing  historic photographs, as well as developing cutting edge techniques for contemporary photography. He was also the founder and board chair of the Edward S. Curtis Foundation,  dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the work of Edward Curtis. No one has done more to increase the awareness, understanding, and appreciation for Curtis’ work than Cardozo. Friends and family are committed to continuing his work.

Author Mark Schwartz.

Upon reaching the age of 70, he wanted to return full circle to his own photography which launched this incredible journey.

Christopher Cardozo is survived by his beloved Mother Patricia, Sisters Julie and Claudia, Brother Jeffrey, his Niece Brittany Lease (Lewis) and their children Alden, Ben and Milo.  Chris also has ten Goddaughters and Godsons with whom he shared many years of companionship and mentoring.  His network of friends, scholars and artistic colleagues knew him as a man with a lovely zest for life lived with no estimated time of arrival . . . .

 

 

3 thoughts on “A Guest Post: Preserving the Work of a Photographer Who Documented Native Americans”

  1. I sold Edward Curtis photos in 1976! Orotones,(gold on glass) and original photogravures from his monumental books!Thanks Chuck for this fine article!

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