By Darren Quintenz


A Mono Home, 1924

A Mono Home, 1924

Cowboys and Indians Magazine


By Mollie Jamison

“In writing about Christopher Cardozo’s book on photographer Edward Curtis, I began to understand the immeasurable power that art has over us as human beings,” says Mollie Jamison.

“Cardozo explained how he has seen Curtis’ work move people to tears, … that emotion adds an entirely different dimension to art,” Jamison says.

For Jamison, the emotional experience of writing the article didn’t stop there. “Talking to Cardozo reminded me of why I love being journalist,” she says. “His dedication to preserving Curtis’ photographs was incredibly admirable and undoubtedly fueled by his shared passion for the subjects. The depth of Cardozo’s knowledge on Curtis felt like a gift … he told the history as if it was his own.”

                                                                                                                                                                          – Mollie Jamison, Journalist

HIS IS ONE OF THE MOST WELL-KNOWN STORIES IN the history of photography. His body of work is also one of photography’s greatest achievements. Edward S. Curtis spent most of his working life documenting what he feared were vanishing peoples, risking — and losing — nearly everything to see his opus, The North American Indian, to completion. More than a century later, his legendary work seems inexhaustible in the fascination and information it holds.

If Curtis hadn’t spent the majority of his life creating photographs, wax cylinder recordings, and ethnographic text to document Native American life, the world would be a less whole and a less rich place, says Christopher Cardozo. A Curtis expert, collector, and private dealer, Cardozo is the man behind the thoughtfully curated book and traveling exhibition Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks.

The book (DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2015) features “the best of the best.” The insightful text, including three essays by Cardozo, gives readers a glimpse of who Curtis was as an artist and focuses on specific ways he made an impact on received history. But, as even Cardozo admits, there’s nothing like seeing the work in person, which you can do at the Palm Springs Art Museum February 20 – May 29; the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, June 18 – September 18; and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida, October 11 – December 31.

Cowboys & Indians talked with Cardozo about his latest contribution to Curtis scholarship, Curtis’ Native American subjects as co-creators, and why the photographer’s work remains so evocative and important.

Cowboys & Indians: Does anything get lost between Curtis’ artistic point of view as a photographer at the turn of the century and the modern audience?

Christopher Cardozo: I think it’s impossible for any of us today to really understand what Curtis experienced and what the Native people were communicating to us. It is such a deep, powerful message. It was from a different time, a different consciousness. It’s impossible for any of us to truly understand the complexity, the depth, and the cultural context in which it was created. Curtis created 40,000 to 50,000 negatives, he made 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of language footage, and he produced 2.5 million words of graphic text. It is an incredibly deep, rich body of work. The best one can hope for with a book or an exhibition is to give a glimpse of the essence of it, and that’s what we worked very hard to do in the exhibition and in the book. We tried to give people a glimpse of the essence of who Curtis was, what the body of work was, and how it got created.

Something we talk about in the book that I think is very powerful, and something that got lost for a while, is that it’s absolutely clear that the Native people were active participants. They were co-creating with Curtis. When you look at the images and when you look at the openness, the vulnerability, the presence that people have when they are being photographed by Curtis, it’s unique in history. You can see that the Native people are actively helping him create this record. Curtis changed the way an entire nation viewed its Native people. It’s quite amazing, and it is unparalleled in the nearly 180-year history of photography.

C&I: How do you think history, as we know it, would be different if Curtis hadn’t documented the Native American way of life to the extent he did?

Cardozo: I think the world would be a less rich and a less inclusive place. When you look at Curtis’ work, one of the most fundamental aspects is his concern with beauty, heart, and spirit. Those are the three underlying essential qualities in what he created, and those are all very healing qualities. Then you look at the environmental aspects, which we’re focusing on more and more (we have an essay by internationally known environmentalist Michael Tobias in One Hundred Masterworks); it’s another very important aspect of the work. Today, Native people are actively reviving their language, their culture, and Curtis’ work is often used in these efforts. Without this collaboratively created body of work, many Native people would have no idea what their grandparents and great-grandparents looked like, how they lived, or what they believed. Overall, this is what I refer to as the Sacred Legacy. It remains a unique resource for Native people, which is really important. And it’s really a deeply human story. It’s about perseverance and passion, vision, diversity, and inclusion — deeply human qualities that are all inherent in his work. It’s powerful, emotional work. I’ve sent exhibitions around the world, from Papua New Guinea to South Africa to Paris — all over the globe, 40 different countries. It is not uncommon to see people moved to tears. Regardless of their culture, people are really touched by how beautiful Curtis’ photographs are and how they are imbued with beauty, heart, and spirit.

C&I: From your point of view as a photographer and Curtis collector, what can be learned about the subject of a portrait beyst glance?

Cardozo: Curtis as a portraitist was simply a genius. What he did, very, very few photographers did and no other photographers of Native Americans accomplished. He shows us the essence of who these people are. Without getting too “New Age-y” about it, I believe that many of the Native people who sat for him were trying to share who they were at a soul level. When you look at his photographs carefully, you understand why people are so touched and sometimes spontaneously moved to tears.

I’m looking at one right now, a very powerful Hopi chief who is looking directly at me. It’s clear when you look at many Curtis portraits that they knew this was the only record their children and grand-children and great-grandchildren would ever have of what they looked like. So it was a very important process. You can see how present they are, how much they are sharing who they are at the deepest levels. And Curtis, because of his strength as a human being and also his mastery of the art of photography — particularly lighting and composition — was able to create images and photographic objects that seamlessly convey to the viewer who the subject really was on the deepest levels.

C&I: Some people criticize Curtis for creating a “romanticized” view or staging some of his photos. How do you weigh in?

Cardozo: I think it’s basically completely missing the point. And I think it’s very un-fair when people criticize Curtis for being overly romantic. What one has to do of all, is look at what Curtis was saying and what was accepted at the time. He had to go in front of a blue-ribbon committee at the Smithsonian before J.P. Morgan would give him his money to get [the project] started, and he passed with flying colors.  So the elite of the anthropology, ethno-graphic community gave him their blessing.

Even more important, you have to look at his whole body of work. He did 10,000 sound recordings, groundbreaking footage, and incredible text — unrivaled text — and 40,000 to 50,000 negatives. Only in some of the photographs was he trying to convey what Native people were like before contact with Europeans. His goal was to show us who they really were as human beings, not what they looked like in 1900.

These “romantic” photographs comprise only a small percentage of his overall work. Nearly everyone “knows” Curtis only from looking at popular books that all draw from the same 100 to 150 images, and, by and large, they don’t know that Curtis did still-life and landscape photographs and he did a lot of work that was purely documentary. But his “artistic” photographs are really what he most wanted to do.

Do you know who Isabel Allende is? She’s an internationally respected magi-cal realist. She writes novels that are not based in reality as we know it. She was being interviewed recently, and there was this perfect moment when the interviewer said, “This must be very challenging for you, to write in the magical realist style, because fears of your career you were a reporter and dealt with nothing but facts. That’s all you wanted and that’s what you worked so hard to get. Magical realism has almost nothing to do with the facts.” The inter-viewer then said, “It’s like you are trying to tell a deeper truth and facts would have just gotten in the way.” I think that’s exactly what Curtis did as an artist. Not as an ethnographer, not as a writer, not as an audio preservationist, and not as a filmmaker — but as a photographic artist. At the core of his photographic work, he is an artist. He’s trying to show us deep human truths.

“In writing about Christopher Cardozo’s new book on photographer Edward S. Cur­tis, I began to understand the immeasurable power that art has over us as human beings,” says Mollie Jamison.

“Cardozo explained how he has seen Curtis’ work move people to tears,…that emotion adds an entirely different dimension to art,” Jamison says.

For Jamison, the emotional experience of writing the article didn’t stop there. “Talking to Cardozo reminded me of why I love being a journalist,” she says. “His dedication to preserving Curtis’ photographs was incredi­bly admirable and undoubtedly fueled by his shared passion for the subjects. The depth of Cardozo’s knowledge on Curtis felt like a gift…he told the history as if it was his own”

– Mollie Jamison, Journalist

An Oasis in the Badlands – Sioux, Hand-colored platinum print, 1905

Western Art Collector

A new exhibition of 100 masterworks
by photographer Edward S. Curtis reveals the
spiritual lives of Native American subjects.
By Michael Clawson

April 2016

At the age of 12, Edward S. Curtis built what would be his first camera using a stereopticon lens his father brought back from the Civil War and $1.25 in spare parts. The meager little contraption, and its very existence in Curtis’ young hands in 1880, marks an important historical moment in the life of the artist, as well as photography as a whole.
Curtis would later graduate to new cameras and new techniques, some that he pioneered, and eventually he ended up in Seattle, where he rose to prominence with his images of landscapes, portraits and of scenes of Native American life. Because of the quality of his work, both as an artist and documentarian, he found himself invited on expeditions to Alaska, Montana, Arizona and other locations to record Native American tribes in their own environments. By 1906, with President Theodore Roosevelt on his side, and J.P. Morgan financing his work, Curtis was fast at work on what would become his magnum opus, The North American Indian, a 20-volume, 20-portfolio series of books documenting the spiritual and cultural history of Native Americans.
Curtis and his works are the subject of a new exhibition, Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, on view now at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, California. The exhibition will feature 100 master prints—rare prints made by the photographer himself or his studio—and various other materials relating to Curtis’ nearly 30-year journey across the continent to document Native people. The show is curated by one of the leading Curtis experts, Christopher Cardozo, whose own collection of Curtis materials rivals that of many museums. Cardozo’s research on the artist, some of it starting in the 1970s, can be credited to the growing re-examination and re-evaluation of Curtis’ work in an artistic and historical context.
“This is my life’s work. I’ve been doing it for 43 years,” Cardozo says, adding that he first saw Curtis’ work in 1973 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, immediately after his own photographic expedition. Two days later he was in Colorado, where he saw more photographs. “I quickly went into debt to acquire two prints,” he says. “That was the beginning.” Today Cardozo—whose email signature comes with a Curtis quote: “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all”—owns a small holding of rare Curtis negatives, hundreds of historical items and ephemera, and several thousand original prints, including the collection that is now on view in Palm Springs. He’s written  nine books on Curtis, including the catalog for One Hundred Masterworks. He’s also republishing the entire set of The North American Indian, which is intended for museums and institutions to use in place of their original copies, which are rare and quite valuable—only 212 were printed, and whole sets have sold at auction for nearly $3 million.
“Curtis is tremendously underappreciated. We’ve sent prints to exhibitions in 40 countries on every continent but Antarctica. We estimate that 10 to 15 million people have been exposed to Curtis through our works. We’ve seen people moved to tears around the world, and still people primarily think of Curtis as a photographer. That’s only part of the story,” Cardozo says, adding that he’s trying to teach audiences about Curtis’ role in preserving Native American heritage for new generations. “He really changed how people view Native peoples. And his story is not just a narrative about photography, but about Native people. It’s also a deeply human story.”
What’s immediately apparent about The North American Indian was the massive scope of the project. The 20-volume book series contains 2,234 original photographs and more than 5,000 pages of ethnographic text, including vital transcriptions of language and music. Additionally, Curtis shot film footage, including feature films and recorded more than 10,000 wax cylinders of music and language examples. And he documented a huge selection of Native tribes: Hopi, Navajo, Piegan, Apache, Dakota and Lakota, Kutenai, Haida, Arikara, Apsaroke, Nez Perce, Zuni and many others. Altogether, Curtis’ work amounts to a significant piece of the cultural record, one that nearly disappeared amid Manifest Destiny and Westward expansion.
“Curtis knew the lifeways he was witnessing were changing forever. At that time, there were still people advocating the extinction of Native peoples on this continent. Assimilation, isolation, disease…we did what we could to make them disappear, and yet Curtis was out there trying to preserve it in every way he knew how,” Cardozo says. “That’s why I really want to educate people about Curtis, because so many people think he’s just a photographer, when he was doing so much more, from films to wax recording to thousands of pages oftext. The photography is just one facet. He wanted his work to tell a deeper truth.”
Although other materials—including goldtone prints, original subscription agreements, original envelopes for the printing plates and a copy of The North American Indian—are on view in Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, it is the master prints that are the star attractions. Many of them were derived from photogravures, a photoengraving process that is the result of a chemical etching onto a copper-clad engraving plate. Standout images in the exhibition include Geronimo – Apache, a portrait of the famous figure as he is wrapped in a dark blanket holding a spear; Cañon de Chelly – Navaho, a dramatic landscape with seven figures on horseback; Watching the Dancers, featuring four blanketed women with distinctive squash blossom hairstyles; Chief Joseph – Nez Perce, an iconic portrait of the leader wearing various pieces of jewelry; and The Vanishing Race – Navaho, one of the most recognizable Curtis images, featuring riders on horseback striding away from Curtis’ lens.
Many of the highlights of the exhibition are portrait works, particularly those of women, who are shown as they really were, with hints of quiet strength and intense vulnerability. “When I look into the eyes of the women photographed by Edward S. Curtis, there is an exchange, there is intensity of regard. Curtis mastered the art of making his subjects so dimensional, so present, so complete, that it is to me as though I am looking at the women through a window, as they though they are really there in the prints and in the paper, looking back at me. This is the genius and the gift of the work,” writes author Louise Erdrich in the exhibition catalog. “The women photographed by Curtis are so alive that it seems any minute they will change their expression; the hint of a smile will turn into a hoot or laugh, the frown into exasperation.”
In a catalog essay titled “A Collective Act of Stewardship” by Eric J. Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota and a Cherokee storyteller, a case is made that the photographs are still speaking to us today.
“As I think about the meaning of these stories and the intentions that these photographs represent, I consider that they were created against the backdrop of cultural assaults that included forced relocation, language decimation, and boarding school diets filled with commodity foods. In this context, these photographs are a remarkable means of communication that connect us to powerful stories told with great care by all involved,” Jolly writes. “Consider the stunning portrait of Princess Angeline, Chief Seattle’s daughter. She is sitting for this photograph in a city named for her father, the same city that, for a time, had prohibited all American Indian people (except domestic servants) from entering the city limits. How she must have felt to be there, to own that space? Her face is not one of resignation or exhaustion; it is a look of determination, pride and belonging. In this moment she posed for our daughters, for our rights, and for our dignity.”
It is stories like these, and many others, that have led Cardozo to devote his entire career to preserving Curtis’ work and sharing it around the world in shows like One Hundred Masterworks. As part of those goals, he has started a repatriation program that will present 10,000 Curtis prints to Native people around the country to “allow Native voices to contribute to the story of Curtis and his works.” Cardozo explains that Curtis believed in The North American Indian so much that he continued the project long after the world at large had moved on to other things.
“When the first World War began, Curtis went from front-page news to nothing. By the Great Depression no one had heard of him and he finished the project in obscurity,” Cardozo. “But he finished it, and today we can see why he kept going.”