Art and ethnography merge beautifully in a new exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum, “Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks,” on view through May 29. Like Alan Lomax, who made field recordings of the myriad sounds of 20th century folk music, Curtis set out to create a comprehensive visual record of Native Americans beginning in 1900. His quest lasted 30 years and resulted in a 20-volume set of handmade books called “The North American Indian” featuring more than 2,200 photographs.
“One Hundred Masterworks” winnows this body of work to an essential number of striking images that depict the richness, variety and spiritual depth of life in Native American cultures. The show features seven print mediums used by Curtis, including toned and untoned gelatin silver, cyanotype and goldtone. It is arranged by geographic region and is meant to highlight not just Curtis’ observational eye but also his contributions to the field of photography as a fine art form.
Particularly striking is Curtis’ ability to create a sense of intimacy with his subjects, which likely came as the result of extensive research on nearly 80 tribes. He made recordings of their languages and music, and he wrote about their food, housing, clothing, religious ceremonies and daily customs.