Support for Curtis’ project waned as the project dragged on–the final volume was released in 1930–and he was largely forgotten until the 1970s when increased interest in Native Americans and fine art photography edged him back into the spotlight. With originals scarce and many negatives destroyed, Curtis became collectible. It was right around this time at Christopher Cardozo, in his twenties and doing a mixture of photography, ethnography, and musicology in Mexico discovered Curtis. As he remembers it, someone mentioned the photographer to him, and he took off for a bookstore, traveling twenty miles. “I remember where the book was on the shelf … that moment I saw my first Curtis photograph,” Cardozo said, adding that he soon went into debt buying vintage Curtis prints.
Cardozo was more than smitten and spent the subsequent 45 years buying and selling Curtis books, portfolios, and photogravures. His personal collection now numbers around 4,000 prints, and yes, he does own an original set of The North American Indian, which has been known to sell for $1 million+ at auction. His is a (deluxe) tissue paper set that he collected in parts over a 5-7-year period. “I really wanted an all-tissue set, because that’s what I love,” he said.
Then, about four years ago, he upped the ante and decided, in “a moment of temporary insanity,” to undertake a fine art republication of Curtis’ entire North American Indian. He said he had several clients over the years who wanted to own a vintage Curtis volume but could not afford it (they can run $10,000-50,000 each), and the only reprint that exists is a poor-quality academic facsimile from the seventies. So began a 35,000-hour project that culminated earlier this year in a contemporary copy of Curtis’ magnum opus that can be an “attractive alternative” for collectors and institutions. Each set contains 20 volumes, 20 portfolios, 2,234 photographic prints, 5,023 pages of text, and over 2.5 million words.
There are two editions. The 150th Anniversary Custom Edition, which Cardozo believes is “the largest republication project in North American publishing history,” includes a full-size recreation of the original with photos printed “one sheet at a time,” and bound in gilt-decorated three-quarter leather. It sells for $28,500. The Complete Reference Edition is a less expensive reproduction featuring the same content and offered pre-sale for $5,200 until May 15, when the price increases to $6,500. For both editions, Cardozo and his team digitized and refined the original letterpress, which featured small and often degraded type. The reproduction is thus easier to read, while retaining the “essential character of the original,” according to the prospectus.
“We wanted something that we felt would be respectful to Curtis,” Cardozo said. “I didn’t want to publish something where the sequencing or the text was changed. We knew people would prefer that.”
The guiding mantra of this project was supplied by Curtis himself, who once wrote, “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.” But he eventually did–and now so has Cardozo.