by Michael Ann Sullivan
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) grew up in the West and always considered herself a Westerner. She said of herself, “I am definitely a westerner and I just have to be in the mountain country. It’s where I belong.” She was born on 22 April 1891 in Austin Bluffs, Colorado sixty-five miles from her parents isolated home, Horse Creek Ranch. Frank Gilpin, her father, had migrated from Philadelphia, in 1880, to help his brother Bernard run a new business venture, the Maryland Cattle Company. Frank soon shed his eastern polished persona and embraced the frontier life of the west. A disastrous winter in 1886 wiped out his brother’s business and sent Frank scrambling for work. This would begin a lifelong pattern of moving from one job to the other. Frank married Emma Gosler Miller in 1890. A family friend, she agreed to join Frank in Colorado, leaving the cultured urban world of Chicago for the wilds of the Rocky Mountains.
The Gilpins more or less lived around Colorado Springs called the “Little London of the West.” Frank worked on several cattle ranches, managed a hotel, and supervised the Lillie mine in Cripple Creek, an area renowned for its rich gold deposits. Despite the uncertainty of her family’s financial situation, Gilpin remembered her childhood fondly. She, her friends, and little brother Francis, grew up outdoors horseback riding and hiking.
Gilpin received her first camera for Christmas the year she turned 12. She immediately began chronicling all her experiences with her Brownie camera. She attended the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri the next year as a guide for her mother’s friend Laura Perry, who could not see. Gilpin carefully explained all the exhibits to her companion but also took copious pictures. The replication of a Philippine Igorot village fascinated her 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.
In 1905, Emma took her daughter and son to New York for a formal portrait sitting with the photographer Gertrude Käsebier. Käsebier joined Alfred Steiglitz’ Photo-Secessionist group at the turn of the century. Steiglitz single-handedly elevated photography to an art form through his connections to the avante guard modern art community in Europe and the U.S. Steiglitz and the Photo-Secessionists broke away from the New York Camera Club which associated with amateur and professional photographers alike. Käsebier eventually abandoned Stielglitz’ elite group of photographers and joined with the so-called pictorialists. Pictorial photographers rejected rarified art and embraced a professional working style that was somewhere in between art and amateur photography. Käsebier’s pictures were expressive and artistic—a sharp departure from the formal portraits of the 19th century. Meeting Käsebier left a lasting impression on Gilpin. When she made a decision to pursue a career in photography she approached the famous photographer for advice. 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. First, Gilpin spent time at Baldwin’s School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, followed by a stint at the Rosemary Hall School in Greenwich, Connecticut. In the hopes that Gilpin would develop her interest in the violin, her mother then sent her to the New England Conservatory of Music. However, a downturn in the family fortunes and mediocre talent cut short her music education.
Gilpin returned home to Colorado in 1911. Her father had moved the family to an 1800-acre ranch in Austin, Colorado. Gilpin kept taking photos but also started a poultry business. She bought some turkey chicks, built pens, developed a special feed, killed and dressed them, and sold them to gourmet restaurants. A Denver paper reported on the phenomenal success of her business, “Society Girl Raises 400 Turkey’s.” She sold her business for $10,000; enough money that she could lend her perpetually insolvent father 9,000 to keep the family afloat and finance a professional education in photography.
In 1916, Gilpin left again for the east to attend the Clarence H. White School in New York, a program recommended to her by Käsebier. She roomed with sculptor Brenda Putnam and two other artists in the city. She and Putnam became lifelong friends, often critiquing and supporting each other’s work. Clarence White, influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow, opposed the Steiglitz School of photography and promoted the technical aspects of photography. White self-consciously trained his students in professional and commercial photography. Like Dow, he stressed good composition and the importance of an artist’s feelings and expression. 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. She was one of a select few photographers in America that used it. 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.
In 1917, she published her first widely circulated photo, The Prelude, a publicity photo of the Edith Rubel Trio, a musical group she herself played in with a roommate. Gilpin thought of herself as a straight photographer. She composed photos through the lens and printed whatever she captured on the negative. Although she used a soft-focus for this piece, she did not employ the techniques of early pictorialists, like hand manipulation of the negative. Eventually, she would also abandon a soft focus and opt for a sharp-edged image for her photos.
In 1918, a serious bout of influenza ended her formal training. Gilpin went back home to recuperate. Her mother hired a young nurse, Elizabeth Forster, from the Colorado Springs Visiting Nursing Association to help with her convalescence. The two young women became fast friends, finding in one another not just common interests and camaraderie but a deeper sentiment and sensibility. Gilpin and Forster were inseparable, often seen together at events in Colorado Springs. They visited one another’s families, camped together throughout the Southwest, and bought property together later in life.
After her recovery, Gilpin took up the life of a professional photographer in Colorado Springs. In 1919, she became affiliated with the Broadmoor Art Academy, starting a class in photography in 1921. Like Käsebier, Gilpin primarily made a living taking portraits. She wrote clever brochures about her work that educated the potential client to the new style of photography. She also took commercial photography assignments—promotional brochures, photo-documentation for architectural firms, and small booklets of photos for tourists. During the 1920s, Gilpin’s work began to receive critical acclaim in exhibitions both at home an abroad. She exhibited at the Photographic Salon in Copenhagen and the International Exhibition of London Salon Photography. She also had her first one-woman show of sixty-one photographs, both portraits and landscapes, at the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs. This show also toured the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe and the Denver Public Library. She also exhibited work in Buffalo, Pittsburg, San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle, and New York.
A 1924, camping trip with Forster and Putnam deeply impressed her with the beauty and timelessness of the Southwestern landscape and its people. Another excursion with Forster in 1930 gave Gilpin an entrée into Navaho society that would allow her to pursue this interest further. The two women ran out of gas twenty miles north of Chinle in a remote part of the Navaho reservation. They were befriended and helped by several Navaho 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 Navaho Reservation. The Navaho accepted Forster and appreciated her ministrations. They nicknamed her Asdzáá Báhózhóní, the Happy or Contended One. Gilpin visited Forster frequently in Red Rock and accompanied her on her rounds. Because of her status as the nurse’s friend, she photographed the inside of traditional hogans and attended Navaho ceremonials. The Depression pinched the New Mexico Association for Indian Affairs’ ability to fund a visiting nurse at Red Rock. Forster lost her position and Gilpin went to New Mexico to help her pack and move back home.
Gilpin’s early photographs of the Navaho from 1931 to 1933 depict a small community of Navaho between the wars, before the 20th century had entirely transformed traditional ways of living. Few families had automobiles, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Many of them still made a living sheepherding or weaving and few spoke English. The portraits also suggest the intimate personal relationships that she and Forster had with the people she photographed.
Gilpin also had a difficult time making a living during the Depression. Gilpin’s mother died in 1927 leaving her with the burden of caring for her father who continued to move from job to job. She tried making lantern slides of her photographs and selling them in sets for academic teaching purposes. In desperation, she and Forster bought 300 acres outside of Colorado Springs and started another turkey farm, Fairfield Farms. Successful, like her previous poultry venture, Fairfield Turkeys were served in the finest restaurants, even New York’s 21 Club. However, success was fleeting—a rival engineered the down-grading of their meat and the women were forced out of the market. It wasn’t until 1942, during the war, that Gilpin finally secured a steady job, from the Boeing Aircraft Plant in Wichita Kansas, as director of publicity.
Gilpin moved in with her brother Francis, who also worked there. She found the work at Boeing challenging and demanding. She took photos of everything—WWII style pin-up girls, industrial processes, and visiting dignitaries. She often had to take pictures in the morning and have them developed and printed by day's end. Her favorite jobs included taking aerial photographs from a B-29. She left Boeing in 1944, shortly after her father’s death. Her brother Francis died in 1945 in a car accident.
In 1946, Gilpin secured a book contract to photograph the Rio Grande River in its entirety. Free of family ties, Gilpin moved to Santa Fe to establish a closer working base for her project. Forster joined her the next year after several years of debilitating illness had forced her to stop working. Forster would live with Gilpin until her death in 1972. With the moderate success of Gilpin’s Rio Grande book, she secured another contract for a book on the Navaho. Both Gilpin and Forster had wanted to publish a book on the Navaho since their work in the 1930s. Twenty years later, in 1950, the two women began work again on the Navaho Reservation. They looked up old friends and made new ones. Gilpin could not afford big modeling stipends like some of the anthropologists in the area. She offered nominal fees or the promise of a photo in return for sitting for a portrait. Gilpin did not complete the project for eighteen years. She often had to quit work on the book to make money to live on; at one point selling her jewelry to survive. Forster’s health often interfered with the work as well. 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.
Gilpin received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico in 1970. The award honored Gilpin for her achievements. “As a photographer she has demonstrated for over fifty years that her art draws its expressive power from her compassionate attunement to her chosen subjects and her honest respect for her medium.” Gilpin 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.
Alter, Judy. Extraordinary Women of the American West. New York: Children’s Press, A Division of Groleir Publishing, 1999.
Danneberg, Julie. Women Artists of the West Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2002.
Gilpin, Laura. The Enduring Navaho. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.
Sandweiss, Martha. Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace. Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1986. [paragraph 2, page 32; paragraph 7, 43; paragraph 17, page 105.]
______. Denizens of the Desert: A Tale in Word and Picture of Life Among the Navaho Indians. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1988.
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