Christopher Cardozo knows why he was put here.

Granted, the realization took its sweet time coming.

But here he is, sitting in an unassuming house near Lake of the Isles, the world's leading expert on Edward S. Curtis, who was known for his sepia photos documenting the lives of North American Indians, at a time when some argued for their obliteration.

While downplaying the expert label, Cardozo will talk, with some emotion, about what his passion has enabled him to accomplish.

"I was led to this," he said, of amassing Curtis' work. "This is my soul's purpose. Why I ended up on Earth at this particular time was to make this work available to people."

How does it happen, that people find such clear purpose, then succeed to the point of renown? Where do chance and circumstance intersect? And how does it feel to experience an almost cosmic connection with a stranger?

We're talking about Cardozo, a gracious man with a white nimbus of hair who looks entirely at home in corduroy trousers whose tufts long ago wore thin. You can't enter his home without being offered a cup of tea.

But we could say the same of Curtis — another man who grew to believe that he was born for a purpose.

So maybe it's not so surprising that their paths crossed. Maybe there's something to both of them once having been St. Paul boys.

In any case, the result is a celebration.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Curtis' birth, an event Cardozo is marking by republishing "The North American Indian," Curtis' monumental 20-volume collection of 2,234 photos and more than 5,000 pages of text.

He's also "repatriating" 10,000 of Curtis' prints to tribal colleges, tribal cultural centers and individuals.

The number comes from the approximately 10,000 individuals who posed for Curtis. Giving back honors the idea that Indians were "co-creators" as the tribes sought out Curtis to document their endangered existence.

"This was a time when people were openly advocating for the extermination of tribes," Cardozo said.

"Curtis was totally impassioned. He so believed in what he was doing and the importance of it that he was preserving a legacy, a record, an understanding," Cardozo said.

But also, beauty.

" 'Ineffable' is the word that comes to mind when trying to give people a sense of the body of his work," Cardozo said. "We all know when you look at a work of beauty, there's a healing. Well, that's what was happening with Curtis and his subjects. He was a very present person, and they were, too. You can see it in their eyes. They were co-creators in this work."

Some Indians disagree, finding Curtis' description of a "vanishing" culture to be presumptuous, or his recreation of the past overly romantic or manipulative. Critics condemn his work as a paternalistic appropriation of Indian culture by white men, even as the project left Curtis bankrupt.

Cardozo believes that Curtis' motives were honest, his connections sincere — and that higher forces played a role.

"When I talk about the photos," he said, "I say they are matter imbued by spirit."

'A shock of recognition'

It's unlikely that Cardozo, now 69, could have put his feelings quite this way back in 1972, when he first laid eyes on some Curtis prints in Boulder, Colo.

All he knew was that the images made him start reaching for the credit card his father had lent him for emergencies.

The card was a parental safety net, given when Cardozo, freshly graduated with a degree in photography and film, left for an Indian village in Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains, a village so remote that residents believed they lived on an island.

For six months, he documented a place that was losing its way, rife with alcoholism and poverty. He took photos in somber, sepia tones. He made friends. He was held at gunpoint. He knew that the experience was changing his life.

Heading home to St. Paul, he stopped in Albuquerque, N.M., where a friend said his photos reminded her of Edward Curtis' work. When Cardozo saw some prints, he experienced a "shock of recognition." Curtis' photos were so like those he'd just made.

Then, in Boulder, he found a gallery that was carrying some Curtis prints.

"I had about 80 pesos to my name," Cardozo said. With a situational definition of emergency, he pulled out the credit card and bought two photogravures for $35 each.

His life as an art dealer began, only for him to learn that it had little effect on his life as a pauper.

With stability in mind, he got a law degree — a distant relative, Benjamin Cardozo, was named to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932 — but his enthusiasm for the law was dim, at best. Figuring that "I would probably be a walking malpractice suit," Cardozo committed to being an art dealer.

By age 39, he was a happier man, taking his own photos, and collecting and dealing in Curtis' work. "But I was a subsistence private art dealer," Cardozo said, mirroring Curtis' life as a subsistence photographer. (More on that in a moment.)

Cardozo decided to go all in with a gallery in Aspen, Colo.

His timing was good.

"People were becoming more interested in a back-to-the-earth ethos," he said, while at the same time, fine art photos were finding a market. "People would come in and spend more in an afternoon than I'd seen spent in two years."

Then, in 1990, Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" hit theaters, spurring interest in all things Indian. Cardozo eventually returned to Minnesota and devoted himself to collecting Curtis' work from the 30 years that he roamed the American West.

Today, Curtis prints sell for thousands of dollars — a great irony, considering that Curtis was always broke.

An urgency to the work

Edward S. Curtis, born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wis., spent his childhood in southern Minnesota, where his father was an itinerant preacher. At some point, young Edward built his own camera and taught himself photography. By 17, he was working as an apprentice in St. Paul.

He was earning a nice living as a photographer in Seattle when he rescued a group of lost mountaineers on Washington's Mount Rainier, where he was taking photos. Several of the men were famed for their work in conservation and Indian culture, which helped Curtis enter a rarefied network, and eventually led to his goal of documenting Indians of North America.

It was, in his own words, "such a big dream, I can't see it all."

With the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis asked financier J.P. Morgan to back the project. Morgan said he would, noting, "I like a man who attempts the impossible."

Morgan was not far off.

In all, Curtis took more than 40,000 photos, often of ordinary people doing ordinary tasks. Many photos were posed or carefully staged, as he tried to re-create what he could of traditional culture before it disappeared, which explained why tribes began seeking him out.

Curtis also recorded languages and songs on 10,000 wax cylinders — the tape recorders of the time — and collected information about foods, dialects, spirituality and traditions. He saw one of the last outlawed Sun Dances.

"There was a sense of urgency to his work," Cardozo said. "Ten years earlier, he wouldn't have felt this. Ten years later, it wouldn't have been there to document."

While the first books of photos and text found an audience, World War I diverted the public's attention. Yet Curtis continued his work until 1928, when his constant state of insolvency became too much. His poverty cost him his marriage, and his health; he was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion for two years after the project wrapped.

He lived out the rest of his years quietly with a daughter in California, dying of a heart attack in 1952 at age 84. A brief obituary in the New York Times noted his research into Indian history, closing with: "Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer."

Refocusing on beauty

That Curtis, a white man, gained such access remains impressive. He did vast amounts of research to gain people's trust. He once described his philosophy as "I worked with them, not at them."

Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich, in Cardozo's 2015 book, "Edward S. Curtis: 100 Masterworks," wrote of how Curtis' images of women were "as disquieting as they are profoundly beautiful.

"While these portraits were posed and painstakingly arranged, the liveliness and the spirit of the women always breathes in the image," wrote Erdrich, who is Ojibwe. While documenting a vanishing culture, "There is a flow of energy in these photographs that carries into the present."

N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, has called Curtis' work "a singular achievement." In the foreword to the 2005 Curtis book "Sacred Legacy," Momaday wrote of how a photo of Kiowa people brought him to tears. "I felt that I was looking into a memory in my blood."

That Cardozo similarly has gained the trust and respect of people such as Erdrich and Momaday speaks to the care he's exerted in enabling Curtis' work to survive.

"It looks like this is about native people, but it's really about human beings," Cardozo said, "about the universal truth about being human."

He's heartened by stories of Indians able to research their culture through the Curtis books he's published. But, harking back to his own days as a photographer, he wants people to also see the art.

If Cardozo is willing to claim credit for anything, "I believe I was instrumental in changing the conversation about Curtis. He'd been thought of as an ethnographer, taking images of a culture that used to be here in this country and collecting the stories behind the images," Cardozo said.

"But I got people to see his work as the artistic achievement that it was. The platinum prints, the gold tones, the cyanographs — they leave me speechless at times."

The republished "The North American Indian," in a limited edition of 75 and priced at $28,500, has been selling mostly to collectors, libraries, and museums.

Cardozo has been setting up exhibitions and lectures across the country. Several events will be held in the fall at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts and the University of Minnesota. Cardozo also said he's in preliminary discussions with the university to create a Curtis Center here.

"My goal has always been to bring the work in new and different ways to new and different audiences," he said.

But with the sesquicentennial, Cardozo also is moving toward bringing his life to a new and different place.

"I turn 70 soon," he said. "And I've got to get back to my own photography."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185