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Laura Gilpin

(1891 - 1979)
Laura Gilpin was an American photographer noted for her images of the landscape and native peoples of the American Southwest.

Born in Austin Bluffs, Colorado (now within Colorado Springs), Gilpin grew up on her father’s ranch.

In 1903, for her twelfth birthday, Gilpin received a Kodak Brownie Camera and immediately began chronicling all her experiences with it (she later received a developing tank for Christmas). The following year she attended the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri as a guide for her mother’s friend Laura Perry, who could not see. It was Gilpin's task to describe every exhibit to her in detail. Gilpin carefully explained all the exhibits to Perry, but also took copious pictures. They visited the fair every other day for a month, and she later said "The experience taught me the kind of observation I would have never learned otherwise.”

The replication of a Philippine Igorot village fascinated Gilpin the most. She snapped photos of the Igorot villagers attempting to carry on their traditional practices amongst the tourists at the fair. Gilpin often told interviewers later in life that this early experience in St. Louis sparked her interest in native peoples.

On her first trip to the East Coast in 1905, her mother took her to New York to have her portrait taken by well-known photographer Gertrude Käsebier. Meeting Käsebier left a lasting impression on Gilpin, and they would develop a lasting friendship.

Gilpin’s mother insisted on a formal education for her daughter. From 1905 to 1910, Laura attended various private schools in the east. When family finances declined, Gilpin left school and returned to Colorado. In an attempt to support her growing interest in photography, Gilpin started a business raising turkeys at her family's ranch. She was able to use the proceeds from raising turkeys to fund trips to the East Coast to further her skills in photography.

On Käsebier’s advice, Gilpin went to New York City in 1916 to study at the Clarence H. White School of Photography (1916–18). Her studies there led her to embrace a pictorialist style that emphasized beauty and artistic creation over photography’s documentary qualities, though over time she developed a more straightforward photographic approach.

Gilpin loved the school and threw herself into her work with a passion. Gilpin learned how to make hand-coated platinum paper. Later, she bought it from a special London company. Platinum paper allowed for a rich velvety black and a wide tonal range. The process of hand-coating platinum paper, which Gilpin continued to do well into the 1970s, was considered a dying art.

"I have always loved the platinum printing process,” she said. “It's the most beautiful image one can get. It has the longest scale and one can get the greatest degree of contrast. It's not a difficult process; it just takes time."

In 1918, a serious bout of influenza ended her formal training. Her mother hired a nurse, Elizabeth Warham Forster "Betsy", to care for her. Gilpin and Forster became friends and, later, companions. They remained together, with occasional separations necessitated by available jobs, until Forster's death in 1972.

While earning her living doing portraits and advertising work, Gilpin began exploring the Southwest and making pictures of the Pueblo Indians and the ruins of their Anasazi ancestors.

Gilpin's long-term involvement with the Navajo began in 1930 when she and Forster ran out of gas twenty miles north of Chinle in a remote part of the Navajo reservation on a camping trip. They were befriended and helped by several Navajo families. This led to Forster’s invitation to return the following year to work as a visiting nurse for the New Mexico Association for Indian Affairs on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Reservation.

Gilpin visited Forster frequently and accompanied her on her rounds. Because of her status as the nurse’s friend, she was able to photograph the inside of traditional hogans and attend Navajo ceremonials. Her pictures of families, trading posts, hogans, and ceremonies form a compassionate record of traditional Navajo life.

The Depression pinched the New Mexico Association for Indian Affairs’ ability to fund a visiting nurse and Forster lost her position.

In 1941 Gilpin published her first major book, The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle, based on a series of lantern slides she had made of archaeological sites. During World War II (1942-1944) she worked as a public relations photographer for the Boeing Company in Wichita, Kansas, and then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she resumed making photographic books. Temples in Yucatan: A Camera Chronicle of Chichen Itza appeared in 1948 and The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, her study of the Rio Grande and the people along its banks, came out the following year.

With the moderate success of Gilpin’s Rio Grande book, she secured another contract for a book on the Navajo. Both Gilpin and Forster had wanted to publish a book on the Navajo since their work in the 1930s. Twenty years later, in 1950, the two women began work again on the Navajo Reservation. However, the project took so long that the original publisher dropped it and Gilpin proceeded anyway when time and money permitted. The University of Texas Press finally published The Enduring Navaho in 1968. The book received favorable reviews from anthropologists, historians, and photographers. It covered a period of thirty years and included the topics of farming, sheepherding, weaving, sand painting, tribal politics, ceremonial dancing, county fairs, and Navaho creation myths.

She was at work on a photographic book about the Canyon de Chelly and its Navajo inhabitants when she died in Santa Fe on November 30, 1979.

Gilpin received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico in 1970 and continued to work as a photographer even though crippled by arthritis. She began work in the 1970s on an ambitious project to document Canyon del Chelly. Gilpin died on 30 November 1979 at the age of 88.

Gilpin's photographic and literary archives are now housed at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

biographical sources include askart, new mexico,