zuni-indian-girlsHers is a simple, worn face; mouth and eyes downturned—in sadness, in waiting, in remembrance? That humble portrait of an old woman—Princess Angeline in Seattle, Washington, 1895—launched a nearly 40-year career unparalleled in its importance to the American West.

She was the subject of Edward Sheriff Curtis’s first photograph, which would become a part of an American treasure that documented the vanishing life of the North American Indian.

His collection of 40,000 to 50,000 negatives—as well as 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of native language and music (with only a few hundred still surviving) and thousands of pages of ethnographic descriptions—is the ultimate preservation of the disappearing Old West.

He spent his life in places where others didn’t dare or care to go, with people commonly seen as savages, except in his eyes. Without him, all that would have been lost forever.

“It’s an incredible legacy,” says Christopher Cardozo, who has spent his own 40-year quest to save, display and broadcast Curtis’s work around the world, most notably, the 20-volume, 2,226-picture set of The North American Indian that was published between 1907 and 1930.

As Curtis himself said: “It’s such a big dream. I can’t see it all.”

Curtis talked Wall Street Titan J.P. Morgan into financing the effort, beginning with $75,000 in 1906, but not a cent was spent in salary for the photographer, who had been born into poverty and spent most of his life on its front porch.

Interest in Curtis’s photos waned as the nation went into WWII; not until the 1970s, when the 25-year-old Cardozo began collecting and displaying Curtis all over again, did his popularity rise, even when some circles criticized him as an exploiter of American Indians. Since then, Cardozo has written eight books on the life and work of Curtis and has watched his value soar among collectors.

A measure? In 1953, a set of  20-volume series sold for $650; in 2012, Christie’s sold a set for $2.88 million.

As Cardozo told Forbes: “Edward Curtis created the most valuable and sought-after set of rare books in U.S. history and left the world a legacy of inestimable importance.”

That perhaps makes Curtis the ultimate Old West Savior.

Jana Bommersbach has been Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and is the author of two nationally-acclaimed true crime books and a children’s book.

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