Once Christopher Cardozo found his life's purpose, he never wavered.

The art collector, dealer and publisher devoted his career to promoting the photography of Edward Curtis, who extensively documented Native American life in the early 20th century. As a result, Curtis' work is much more accessible today.

"I was led to this," Cardozo told the Star Tribune in 2018. "This is my soul's purpose. Why I ended up on Earth at this particular time was to make this work available to people."

Cardozo, who lived in Minneapolis, died Feb. 21 after suffering for several years following a stroke. He was 72.

He grew up in St. Paul and developed an early passion for photography. He stumbled across Curtis' work in the 1970s after a friend noted its similarities with his own photographs of Indigenous people in Mexico.

"Their work was amazingly similar," said his sister, Julie Cardozo. "That was the beginning. Chris fell in love with Curtis' work [and] found a vintage piece right away."

Cardozo slowly amassed the largest private collection of Curtis' work, ranging from master prints to original glass-plate negatives. He opened a gallery in Aspen, Colo., that sold Curtis images and created laborious reproductions using Curtis' original methods.

Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868 and spent part of his childhood in Minnesota. After working as a studio photographer in Seattle in the late 1800s, he traveled the West documenting Native American people and their traditions — which were under threat.

"It's one of the most artistic collections of American Indian life at a time of great transition," said Eric Jolly, president of the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation.

With financial backing from J.P. Morgan, Curtis ultimately produced a seminal work titled "The North American Indian." Combining text and more than 2,000 images, the full set spanned 20 text volumes and 20 portfolios of loose photogravures.

Original sets of "The North American Indian" are so rare that they can sell for several million dollars. So several years ago, Cardozo embarked on his biggest project of all: republishing "The North American Indian."

After years of work, Cardozo and his team produced both a limited-edition version (selling for more than $30,000 per set) and a less expensive reference edition.

"[Cardozo] titled one of his books the 'Sacred Legacy,' " said Jolly. "He felt as if he was helping manage that legacy and giving it life for another generation. And giving it life for the descendants who participated with Curtis."

Cardozo also grappled with his role as a white man owning so much historic Native American imagery, said Kelly Drummer, a friend who is executive director of Migizi, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization focused on Native youth. She said they had many conversations about how he could give these images back to Native communities.

"He always struggled with that," said Drummer. "It was always on his mind. And I think he always had the best intent. It was just, how does he go about doing it?"

Cardozo had donated many books and photos, but in 2014 launched the "10,000 Print Repatriation Project" to connect the descendants of Curtis' subjects with photos of their ancestors.

"I've never met anybody as singularly focused as Chris was in the art business," said Darren Quintenz, a photography dealer who worked with Cardozo in Aspen. "He found deeper and deeper levels of meaning in Curtis that kept his interest."

Cardozo is survived by his mother, Patricia Cardozo of St. Paul; sisters Julie Cardozo of Minneapolis and Claudia Cardozo of Boulder, Colo.; and brother Jeffrey Cardozo of St. Paul. A memorial service will be held later this year.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732