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July 2016

LA B O R o f L OV E

Edward S. Curtis magnum opus,

The North American Indian, gets a masterful republication

in honor of the photographers sesquicentennial.
By Michael Clawson

ver the course of more than 30 years beginning in the

late 19th century, photographer Edward S. Curtis documented every facet of Native American culture, from
courting rituals and spiritual beliefs to language and
songs. His ultimate goal was a massive 20-volume, 20-portfolio
publication titled The North American Indian. The project was
championed by Teddy Roosevelt and had financial support from
J.P. Morgan, and was destined to become one of the most important artistic and ethnographic studies of Native people the world
had ever seen.
When World War I broke out Curtis was bumped from the
front pages of newspapers from which he had once been a
staple. As the war dragged on, interest waned for The North
American Indian. Against all odds Curtis pushed forward even
as his wife had left him taking their four children, his health
deteriorated and progress on the book seemed to only inch
forward. Despite all this, Curtis completed The North American Indian in 1930, but by then America was in the Great
Depression and few had the means for such an expensive

20-volume publication on Native Americans. The publication was

stunning in its breadth and gorgeously handmade with the finest
materials and great attention to detail. It was immediately hailed
as the greatest publishing accomplishment since the King James
Bible, but it slowly faded, a fate shared by Curtis, who died unknown and penniless.
Enter Christopher Cardozo. He found Curtis during a resurgence of his work in the 1970s, a resurgence Cardozo can
take a lot of credit for having started. His collection started
with a few prints, and has since blossomed into holdings that
would make most museums weep with envy. Last year Cardozo saw a problem with The North American Indian: the 20-volume, 20-portfolio set was so rareonly 160 sets still exist, and
a complete set could sell at auction for nearly $3 millionthat
it effectively shut researchers, students and art collectors out
from ever enjoying the books except behind glass at a museum
or, even rarer, by appointment in an archive room where whitegloved specialists slowly turned pages under tight security. The
bookand its iconic and revealing portraits of Native American

men, women, children and their customs and landscapesneeded to be liberated from the
confines of its rarity.
Many people consider The North American Indian to be the most important set of rare
books that have been created in the United States. Its certainly one of the most beautiful,
and a unique window into the history of the American West and the lifeways of Native American people and their heritage, Cardozo says. But unless you have $2 million its really
hard to see one. All but a few of the originals sets are in libraries and major institutions, and
it can be nearly impossible to get access to them. And even if you do, youll be lucky to see
even 10 percent of the whole publication. So there are real issues around access, as well
as preservation, and viewing the originals.
Cardozos answer to this dilemma around Curtis magnum opus was simple: he would republished the whole set with exacting detail, the highest quality printing and a sensitivity to the
material and aesthetics that would likely only be rivaled by Curtis himself. Cardozo is now more
than halfway through the three-year project, which he has timed with the 2018 sesquicentennial of Curtis birth. He estimates it will take about 35,000 hours of work, including scanning
and remastering the original images, proofing thousands of pages of text, layout and design,
and much more before the actual printing and custom binding begins. When he started the
project he was determined to make the books as true to their originals as possible. As a testament to that, each page is identical in content to the original except for typeface. And to give

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), Qahatika Girl, 1907, photogravure, 16 x 12

Frontispiece of one of 20 volumes of the book republication.

Pullout map of Little Bighorn in The North American Indian.

you a sense of the size of the set, they contain 2,234 photographs and illustrations, 5,023 pages of text, and more
than 2.5 million words, some of them including special
characters used in Native American languages that had to
be created from scratch by Curtis on a letter press and all
over again by Cardozos team using a proprietary custom
We like to refer to it as a re-creation, because we
have made changes and enhancements, but they are
improvements for contemporary readers and viewers.
Im not saying ours is betterthe originals are extraordinarybut ours is more legible and readable, and the
photographs are more richly hued. The typeface and layout is more accessible, and the print quality is superb,
he says, adding that two of the major changes include a
noticeable clean-up of the typeface and layout and condensed versions of the portfolios. Originally, each volume came with its own portfolio20 volumes, 20 portfoliosbut the prints werent bound, just loose with the

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), The Three Chiefs Piegan, 1900/1911, photogravure, 12 x 16

volume. For the republication, Cardozo condensed the 20 individual portfolios into five bound portfolios that contain all 723 photogravure plates, many
of them iconic imagery of Native Americans.
Ive been told this is the largest and most ambitious republication project
in North American history. It has become a herculean task for us. But it pales
in comparison with what Curtis had to do. He laid down the foundation, he
laid down the path. Against all odds Curtis did it. He had no money at the
end, and he sadly had to sell the copyright to his images, but he finished the
project, Cardozo says, adding that Curtis work stands with Karl Bodmers
Travels in the Interior of North America and John James Audubons Birds of
America as three of the most important books of their kind. But what makes
Curtis work stand out is the text and transcriptions of language and music.
And the writing and research revealed so much about Native peoples and
their culture and heritage. Thats the distinction between The North American
Indian and everything else.
Cardozo has limited the editions of the republication to 75 sets. Hes sold
over 30 so far with little marketing or press, and as he gets closer to finishing
the project within the next five months he expects prices to go up substantially before selling out completely. Due to increasing investments in the project
and strong demand, the sets have already more than doubled in value over
the past year. The current price for a set is $28,500, which is still only 2 to
3 percent of the price of an original set. Right now weve sold to both institutions and private collectors. Institutions are subscribing so they can make
it accessible to researchers, students and the general public. Many of them
own original sets and want to have the republished set to accomplish three
things: access, preservation of the original and to greatly reduce staff time,
Cardozo says, adding that he has already received great praise for the proj- Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), Nez Perce Babe, 1900/1911, photogravure, 16 x 12
ect from a number of institutions, including Harvard University, Northwestern
University, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
A very worthwhile project is being realized with great success, and I am
so pleased to be able to promise access to this stunning, modern, yet soonto-be-classic edition to students and researchers who come to Harvard from
all over the world to use our library collections, says Janet Steins, collection
librarian at Tozzer Library at Harvard University.
Historian and art critic A.D. Coleman states: In terms of elegance and
sumptuousness, what the Cardozo Fine Art project has accomplished can
stand alongside the parent edition as a worthy successor thereto, he says.
Its sensuous, tactile qualities evoke exactly the immersive experience that
Curtis intended to deliver to those who read its texts and engage with its
images. An artisanal landmark, this new edition offers as close an approximation as one can imagine of a hands-on, eyes-on encounter with Curtis
masterpiece in its original form.
In addition to the republication, Cardozo is also repatriating 10,000 Curtis
Binding detail on Edward S. Curtis magnum opus, The North American
prints back to the tribes and tribal members from which they originated. With Indian. All images courtesy Christopher G. Cardozo Collection.
the repatriation project and the book republication, hes happy with the place
that Curtis occupies in the world of art and history. If only he had lived to see
his work attain the height of its glory.
Curtis work is monumentally important, and ultimately, I just want as
many people to see as possible, Cardozo says. The North American Indian
was the crown jewel of his career. His life revolved around completing it. Its
important that it be seen today.