Cardozo Fine Art is republishing The North American Indian, Edward S. Curtis's grand semi-sociological survey of the vanishing aboriginal tribes of North America as they lived in the decades before he photographed them*. The original 20-volume set, containing 2,234 photographs and almost two and a half million words, was published between 1907 and 1930 with financial backing from J.P. Morgan. Today, it is book-collecting unobtanium. A full set was sold at auction by Swann Galleries in 2012 for $1.44 million.
Edward S. Curtis never got quite the reputation he probably deserves, perhaps because he wasn't quite "unblinking" enough, you might say, as a documentarian...he had a tendency to prettify and romanticize his subject, as if trying to recreate a Rousseauian primordial idyll that never actually existed, instead of taking a harder and more coldly accurate look at a culture in volatile and fast-changing transition. Later generations came to understand that over-romanticizing the Indian is a common weakness, and that it relates to ethnic subjugation. But there's no questioning the epic nature of his project, one of the most extensive and fanatical in the history of photography, nor his dedication to it. It's possible no photographer ever worked harder or sacrificed more for his work...which is saying a lot, as successful photographers have traditionally been hard workers.
The new republication will be a fastidiously reproduced deluxe facsimile, and is itself a vast and ambitious project, requiring numerous experts and tens of thousands of hours of labor. No word on the price, but it's very likely a case of "if you have to ask...." I didn't absolutely peruse the materials on the sale site, but I believe the new edition will be limited to 75 sets, many of which are doubtless destined for institutions. The copy photos, sourced from original photogravures from the Frederick Webb Hodge Set, were made using a Nikon D800.
(With my editor's hat on, I have to pick a small nit with this sentence in the promo materials: "Curtis had the support of the wealthiest man in the world, J.P. Morgan, and the president of the world’s most powerful country, Theodore Roosevelt." The United States was by no means most powerful country in the world when Teddy Roosevelt was President. We were a powerhouse of trade, somewhat like China is now, but in other ways only a regional power, ranking somewhere between third to seventh on the list of the world's nations depending on how you weigh the varying factors. Fifth or sixth probably comes closest to the truth. But never mind.)
(Thanks to Ari Kermaier)
*Curtis made efforts to eliminate traces of modernity and the white man's world at the time, sometimes allegedly even changing the way his portrait subjects were dressed to eliminate traces of modern culture and the outside world. Curiously, as I was researching the recent McCurry kerfuffle, I came across the same allegation leveled against Steve McCurry. It occurred to me that it might actually be interesting if some scholar of photography were to look into the commonalities—and differences—between McCurry and Curtis.
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Featured Comments from:
Kenneth Tanaka: "Timothy Egan's story of Edward Curtis's quest to document as many native American tribes as possible is an outstanding read, especially in the summer. It's available on Kindle as well as dead trees. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Warning: It's not about photography. In fact it's not really about Native Americans. It's about obsession, desperation, and tenacity."
Chester Williams: "'The current cost is $25,000 and is expected to go up to $28,500 by mid-July. Payments may be split up over a number of months as your subscription is fulfilled.' Anyone got extra money to spare...."
Robert Murphy: "While Curtis did change things, he was first and foremost a photoethnographer, and he did his best to document a dying way of life. My 'win the lottery and buy what you want' would be a complete set of his works. I would not in any way compare him to McCurry. The project broke his marriage, his health, and left him broke according to the biographies. While he might have removed traces of the 'white man's world,' Curtis needs to be applauded for even attempting what he did."
K Thompson: "With regard to the camera for the repro work, lots of museums and archives use DSLRs like the D800 and others. I work as a museum photographer in an agency that has an archive as well as microfilm reformatting operation for records. The archive has book scanners as well a very large flatbed capable of scanning up to four feet. That works great for Cirkut prints, especially the curled ones that won't lay flat. In our photo dept. we used to shoot 4x5, but for a variety of reasons wound up going to the Nikon D3X. the art museum photo dept. uses a Phase 1 capture back, but they mostly do repro work with paintings. The scanning backs have some issues with needing to use constant lighting which isn't great for fragile items that may be damaged from heat. Conservators typically frown on using hotlights also, and so handling and getting items to lay flat, like pages in old books etc. is always a challenge. When we shot film, it was almost always with strobe and 4x5 EPN because of the conservators.
"I still do a lot of copywork of photos and other textual items that could be scanned on the large format Epson we have, because I can use cross-polarization to handle glare from silvering-out prints and textures as well. I suspect the choice of camera has to do with who is doing the work as well as their budget. In my humble opinion, having shot 4x5 EPN for over 20 years in a museum, the D3X produces more accurate color. It only lacks resolution and has some diffraction-limiting issues but the scan backs are very similar with those problems also and much more expensive."
Lachlan: "The FAQ claims US$25,000, US$28,500 by mid-July and eventually hitting US$35,000.
"I'm a little perplexed by some of the methods and materials they're planning to use. Nothing wrong with inkjet—indeed I'd argue that few repro methods will equal it quality wise, especially in a run of that size. The rest of the enterprise seems a little lacklustre—Mohawk Superfine is a beautiful paper, but it is not really the paper to use for a set of books of this limitation and cost—why not a proper mouldmade? Was it so the iTone coated version could be used alongside for the inkjet images? Even so, a top quality inkjet paper would have presented no challenges to a skilled bookbinder whatsoever.
"Moving on to the typography, I'm quite amused at their claim that digitally set text, printed on a short-run laser digital press is in some way vastly superior to letterpress—if anaemic and grey can be seen as an improvement. It's not as if it's difficult to prepare a digital file, get it output to polymer and printed letterpress by one of the many excellent printers in the USA.
"In essence it looks like it might be a nicely bound facsimile with decently printed images, wrapped up in an otherwise bland production which fails to make the most of its imposing budget.
"Which is a massive pity—a larger run (by offset) might have allowed greater access to the material without compromising the content or, arguably, the materials. In the same vein, a totally uncompromised production might be less profitable, but would make the extreme cost seem far more reasonable. In fact the more I look at the whole thing, I wonder if it isn't simply a really expensive P-O-D book, printed whenever a set is ordered...."