Historic images show Native American way of life

Story highlights

  • Christopher Cardozo has the largest collection of Edward S. Curtis photographic prints
  • Curtis spent nearly three decades documenting Native Americans in the early 1900s

(CNN)Forty-two years ago, Christopher Cardozo discovered the works of Edward S. Curtis, whose photographs, text, film footage and sound recordings focus on the Native American population and their way of life.

Cardozo has been collecting Curtis' work ever since, and today he has about 4,000 of Curtis' photographic prints -- the largest collection in the world.
"Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks," is Cardozo's ninth monograph on Curtis, and it includes a selection of what Cardozo believes are Curtis' best images. The photo book also serves as the catalog for a traveling exhibition set to continue until December 2016.
    "A lot of people are familiar with Curtis' imagery, but often in very poor reproductions and not always of great original prints," Cardozo said.
    Photographer Edward S. Curtis
    The photo book, Cardozo says, is focused on purely artistic executions. Equally as important as the history behind each and every one of the sepia-toned photographs is the humanity that lives within them.
    "Really the core and the essence of the photographs in this book, 'One Hundred Masterworks,' are really all about the art and the beauty and who these people were as human beings, independent of any cultural group." Cardozo said.
    Despite the fact that Curtis' images were taken more than 100 years ago, they have managed to endure. Cardozo believes they have a great importance and significance in the modern-day world.
    "I've sent exhibitions to 40 countries, from Papua New Guinea to South Africa to Paris, Finland, all over the world," Cardozo said. "And what we've seen is people responding to these images irrespective of their socioeconomic status, independent of their culture, independent of their educational background."
    Cardozo attributes the power and value of the images to Curtis himself, stating how he believes the making of the photographs was a collaborative effort that ultimately culminated to "tell us a deeply human story" about a population that was at one time -- and perhaps even today -- widely misunderstood.
    "These Native people who actively participated in creating this record with him were very much giving of themselves," Cardozo said. "They're very present, they're open, vulnerable in some cases. They're really trying to share who they are as human beings. ... It's an incredible message about resilience. It's a great message about diversity, inclusion, passion, persistence, vision."
    Cardozo says Curtis' images have changed people's views and perceptions toward Native Americans immensely, because at the core of each there is an underlying presence of "beauty, heart and spirit."
    He notes that there was a time in history when it was uncertain whether the Native American people would survive as a race, and there were people actively advocating for the massacre of the Native American people entirely. According to Cardozo, "Curtis played a big part in helping turn that around."

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    Cardozo adds that Curtis' work has played just as big a role in the lives of Native American people themselves.
    "The work is being used actively by Native people to help them rediscover who they are, what their language was, what their customs and rituals were," Cardozo said. "In many cases, the descendants of people who Curtis photographed have no photographs of them. If you think of what conditions were like in 1900, even if they were given photographs -- which often happened -- they've been lost or destroyed. I am finding that the Native people, overwhelmingly, really appreciate what Curtis and their ancestors did together."
    What Cardozo enjoys most about collecting Curtis' work is being able to share it with the world. But he says the other big thrill for him is the continuous process of discovering materials that he has never seen before.
    "Seeing Curtis' work for the first time ... that was one of the most transformative experiences of my life," Cardozo said. "Being able to bring what is fundamentally a healing message to the world ... being able to bring something to people that has such an impact all over the world on all kinds of people -- that is just an amazing joy."