It Was Love
Laura Gilpin, the daughter of Emma and Frank Gilpin, was born on April 22, 1891, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Frank first came west in 1880 to help his brother, Bernard in a business venture, The Maryland Cattle Company. The winter of 1886 was severe and disastrous and wiped out
his brother’s burgeoning cattle business. This sent Frank scrambling for work and began a life long pattern of moving from one job to another. He would become an adventurer, cowboy, miner, investor, manager of a hotel and a mine, as well as a cattle rancher. He believed that the west was full of opportunity and possibility, both of which seemed to elude Frank. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that he finally found his niche and settled down as a successful artisan and craftsman of fine furniture.
Laura’s mother, Emma Gosler Miller, grew up in St. Louis and Chicago. Her family and the Gilpin family were friends. Frank convinced her to leave her cultured life in the east and move, as his wife, to the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. While she agreed, she most certainly did not share her husband’s passion for the western way of life. She had been raised in a rich cultural environment and educated at very proper schools. She and Frank settled at their Horse Creek Ranch, but she was very homesick and longed for the cultural stimulation that big cities provided and she was so used to. While living in the wilds of the west she always attempted to bring some culture and refinement to the rustic homesteads. This took on many forms.
When she was expecting her first child, Laura, Emma traveled to the home of an acquaintance in Austin Bluffs, which was 65 miles from their ranch, in order to be closer to a doctor. She was determined to provide the best care for herself and the baby, and this included a safe place for the birth and proper attendants. She certainly did not consider Horse Creek Ranch the best place to deliver her first child!
Quite unlike her mother, Laura thrived on the western way of life. As a child, she loved the outdoors and exploring. Her father encouraged her to explore and to hike and camp in the untamed Colorado landscape. She was distantly related to William Gilpin, the explorer who became
the first territorial governor of Colorado, and to William Henry Jackson, the photographer. As a young girl she knew Dr. William A. Bell, who was the photographer for the Kansas and Pacific Railroad in 1867. Another friend was William Jackson Palmer, engineer, Civil War General and the founder of the town of Colorado Springs and of the Denver Grande Railroad. When she knew him he was elderly but he had a fondness for her and took her horseback-riding, and as they rode the countryside he would point out various plants, trees, and wildlife telling her their names. She recalls: “He taught me to know the outdoors, and especially to love it.” She thrived under his tutelage. She attributed her lifelong passion and dedication to photography to Palmer.
In 1903, when she was twelve, she received a Brownie camera for her birthday. The following year she received a developing tank. She love photography, quickly mastering the early color photographic process, self taught, by following the directions that were enclosed in the supplies. Her talent was very evident and she was blossoming as a photographer, making still lifes from simple subjects she found around the farm.
The following year, she used that little Brownie camera to photograph the St. Louis World’s Fair. She often said this was a very important year in her life. While in St. Louis she visited a family friend, and her namesake “Laura” Perry who was blind. It fell to her to describe each exhibit at the Fair
in fine detail to Laura Perry. They visited the fair nearly daily for a month and Laura Gilpin was Laura Perry’s eyes, describing even minute details for her. She later said “the experience taught me the kind of observation I would have never learned otherwise.”
By 1909 she was making Lumiere autochromes like a professional. This was a very early form of color photography, developed by two brothers in France, using glass plates, potato starch, and color. Her mother was so impressed with her talent she took her back east to meet the amazing
photographer, Gertrude Kasebier, who was a native of Colorado. Kasebier was also impressed with Laura’s work and advised her to train professionally. Kasebier was was an American photographer known for her images of motherhood, her portraits of Native Americans, and her promotion of photography as a career for women.
From 1905 to 1909, Laura received most of her education back in the East. Her mother was insistent that she receive a good and formal education at Eastern boarding schools. First, she attended Baldwin’s School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania followed by a stint at the Rosemary Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut. However, she returned home before graduating. For a year in 1910 she studied, again at her mother’s insistence, at the New England Conservatory of Music. Her mother hoped she would develop an interest in the violin. At this time here was a bit of a downturn in the family fortune. That combined with her less than ardent interest in the violin and only mediocre talent, resulted in her return to her beloved Rockies to work on her family farm in 1911. She was back in her element for sure.
Back on the farm, she had time to think about her life and decided that she wanted to study with the photographic masters of the day in New York. In order to facilitate that,Laura became an entrepreneur, raising turkeys on the farm to provide capital to make her dream of studying in New York come true. By now her father had moved the family to an 1800 acre ranch in Austin, Colorado.
Laura purchased turkey chicks, built secure pens for them, developed a special blend of feed, killed and dressed them, and sold them to local gourmet restaurants. Her turkey business was wildly successful and was even featured in a Denver newspaper in 1913: “Society Girl Raises 400 Turkeys.” Photography was still a burning passion. She photographed everything from chickens and turkeys, to her brother and the wild landscape. Eventually, she sold her business for $10,000, which was enough for her to lend her perpetually insolvent father $9,000 to keep the family afloat and still finance her education in photography.
By 1916, she enrolled in a 28-week course at one of the leading photographic schools, the Clarence H. White School of Photography, highly recommended by Gertrude Kasebier. Gertrude became a mentor and a dear friend. The teaching staff at the White school included such prominent photographers and artists as White himself, Max Weber and Paul Anderson. The school taught photography both as a commercial tool and as a form of artistic expression. She deeply admired White calling him “one of the greatest teachers I have ever known in any field.” His theory was that taking a good picture involved an investment in emotion and feelings. Laura learned photographic process, technique, principles of composition, technical skills, and alternative printing methods that
included platinum printing, a process she employed over the next 60 years.
Laura Gilpin is considered one of the greatest platinum printers. She said: “I have always loved the platinum printing process. A platinum print is made with paper containing light sensitive iron salts and a platinum compound, rather than the conventional silver salts, exposed in daylight in contact with a negative. The process was invented in 1873 by William Willis and made commercially available in 1879. Gilpin felt that it was most beautiful image one could achieve. “It has the longest scale and one can get the greatest degree of contrast. It’s not a difficult process; it just takes time.” Laura spent the following summer at the White School in Colorado Springs, and in the
fall moved back to New York. She had immersed herself completely in her study and work.
In 1918, she became very ill with Spanish influenza there and was forced to
return to her home in Colorado. Spanish flu, also known as the Great Influenza epidemic or the 1918 influenza pandemic, was an exceptionally deadly global pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus.
Naturally, Laura’s mother was quite concerned about her daughter’s health and wanted a speedy and full recovery, so she hired a professional nurse, Elizabeth (Betsy) Forster, to care for her. Betsy was working as a visiting nurse in remote Arizona, but accepted the position of nursing Laura. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship; one of dedication, devotion, and sharing.
Laura regained her health and Betsy returned to her visiting nursing duties. It wasn’t long before Laura returned to photography but never to school. Her formal education had ended but her career in photography was really just beginning. She often accompanied Betsy on her nursing trips, out in the far reaches of the Navajo reservations in remote areas of Arizona. It was during these trips that they both became totally, respectfully and passionately obsessed with the the Navajo. While Betsy took care of nursing those who needed her care, Laura photographed and wrote their stories. She had a great and enduring love and understanding of these people. They returned that love and respect. The Navajo, she said, had two great qualities that really stood out- dignity and happiness. She believed that both sprung from their vital traditional faith; faith in nature and faith in themselves.
It is interesting to note that Laura’s relationship with the Navajo actually had it’s beginnings in 1930 when she and Betsy ran out of gas while on a camping trip in a far lying area of the reservation, in the middle of nowhere, twenty miles from Chinle. The early pictures she took were focused on individuals but through these portraits, she came to fully grasp the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. Her pictures of families, trading posts, hogans, and ceremonies created a vivid, insightful and compassionate record of traditional Navajo life during that era. From 1931 to 1933 her photos show the Navajo community between wars, before the 20th century had completely transformed their traditional lifeways. Few families had automobiles, electricity, or indoor plumbing. They had to haul their water. Most of them still made a living in the traditional way, sheepherding or weaving and few spoke English. This early work really suggests the intimate personal relationships that she and Betsy had with the people she photographed.
Her family was very supportive and her early subject matter which included portraits of friends, family, acquaintances, and landscapes of the local area of Colorado Springs. In 1919 she joined a group of artists in Colorado Springs that were associated with the Broadmoor Art Academy, and did a series of photographic brochures for the school. This was the year that the Academy was opened. It was founded with a vision of creating a new art institution of national stature. The Academy was originally located in a converted mansion on the corner of Cascade and Dale in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The building had previously been the home of the school's founders, Spencer and Julie Penrose - the owners of the Broadmoor Hotel.
Art instructors and students alike brought their diverse styles and talents to Colorado, lured by the exquisite landscapes that only the west affords.This was a time in history when people were beginning to recognize that rather than having painted portraiture done, photography was a much easier, less expensive and satisfying way to achieve a similar effect.
Laura Gilpin practiced the Pictorial style, which imitates the effects of painting. When she was in the studio she focused on the natural spirit of her subjects, using relaxed poses and soft, natural light. She exhibited her work in Copenhagen at the Photographic Salon; had a one woman show of sixty-one works, of both portraits and landscapes at the Braodmoor in Colorado. The work from the Broadmoor show toured the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe and the Denver Public Library. Her work was also being shown in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle and New York. She was becoming known.
Laura did submit her portraits and even some still lifes to exhibitions and competitions, but her real success stemmed from her western landscape photographs. She had always loved the West and her roots were there in Colorado Springs. Her taste for this landscape was deepened when she
traveled with her father to Mexico, and they stopped in Santa Fe, to visit the Museum of New Mexico.
She spent time in New York studying portrait sculpture with Brenda Putnam in an attempt to improve her portrait work to which she was very dedicated. Putnam was a noted American sculptor, teacher and author. They were roommates, supporting each other, and they often had rousing discussions about art. This led to a deep and lasting friendship between the two women and they remained in close contact for the rest of their lives.
She traveled to Europe, a trip that later impacted her work greatly. She began to experiment more with sharp focus in her photography and was very interested in creating photographic books after she had been introduced to the work of William Blake, English poet, painter, and printmaker who was largely unrecognized during his life. The time she spent in Europe also expanded her knowledge of art and art history which helped to solidify her identity as a western American artist. Feeling more confident in who she was, knowing her focus, developing style and
niche, paved the way for a deeper passion in her beloved western landscape.
To earn a living she became a “contract” photographer, doing portraits and landscapes to promote business, tourism, and educational and health institutions. She also published guidebooks, providing both images and text. The subjects that she found the most meaningful, satisfying and dear to her heart though were those of the Pueblo and Navajo that she photographed in
their homelands when she traveled with Betsy.
When World War II broke out, Laura was the publicity director and chief photographer for Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, from 1942-1945. This was when she discovered aerial photography. Later, during early years of the great depression (1929-1939), she created a series of picture postcards as a way of generating some income.
Laura traveled again to New Mexico, where she photographed Pueblo Indians and the ruins of their Anasazi ancestors, and the Canyon de Chelly region, near Santa Fe. In 1941 she published her first major book, The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle, based on a series of lantern slides she
had made of archaeological sites. Other books of her photographs are The Pueblos (1941), Temples in Yucatan (1948), and The Rio Grande (1949).
She was very interested in both the history and archeology of the region, photographing the native people and their ancient ruins. Her work during this period reflects her previous training, placing greater emphasis on the evocation of mood (the Pictorialist method) than on detail, and
she favored the soft, delicate grays of platinum printing papers. The results were stunning and live on today. Her soft focus prints of Mesa Verde and the prairies of Colorado indicate as much about the emotion the artist was feeling while viewing the scene, as the subject itself.
Laura returned to the Navajo reservation in 1950 in order to re-photograph many of her previous subjects for her book, The Enduring Navajo, published in 1968. She revisited many old friends and acquaintances while attempting to record the current Navajo world view, making note of the changes that had occurred since her last visit there, and talking about political and economic issues that were now facing the tribe. Her photographs are characteristically infused with a luminous, soft light and composed in classic elegance. Laura Gilpin applied compassion to the relationship between the landscape and the native people, a trait that distinguished her from most male landscape photographers of the West. Many still regard her as the only significant woman landscape photographer of her time.
Thus, in 1968, when her book The Enduring Navajo was published, John Collier, Jr., a renowned photographer and anthropologist, said of the book: it is “a work of LOVE not ANALYSIS.” It is a work that really captures Laura’s deep sense of understanding and respect for the Navajo people.
She focused on issues that were important to the Navajo, their culture, and their traditions.
Her work with the Navajo remains a respected and admired record of the Dineh, the People, and her body of work greatly honors them. Some scholars offered much praise for her record of highlighting and honoring a culture that many said was dying, perhaps in attitude and desire, similar to what Edward Curtis, the renowned ethnographer and photographer, did in his work A Vanishing Race. But she saw a long and rich future for these people, and she did not see them as “a dying race.” Laura and her work have been recognized internationally, and the finest museums display her photographs.
She was accepted as a member of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1930. Her work has influenced many in the art field, excelling in a career that was new for women. Ansel Adams had nothing but the highest praise for Laura and her art, saying that she had a “highly individualistic eye. I don’t have the sense that she was influenced except by the land itself.” The scholar and critic, John Brinkerhoff Jackson, said that “Miss Gilpin’s camera, like the sundial, records only the sunny hours.” He had lavish praise for her book, it’s accurate economic, social and agricultural data and ended by saying that “It is far more than a picture book, therefore; it is a geography for adults.”
It seems that Laura was a woman of great Western toughness but equally great Eastern gentility. She could, and did, hire a plane or a camping place overnight to get the exact picture she desired. She often spoke with authority about the challenges of landscape photography. Her first
published photograph of the Grand Canyon was in 1916. She was a consummate professional and craftswoman with an enduring love for the world around her. She wrote to a friend in 1956: “What I consider really fine landscapes are very few and far between. I consider this field one of
the greatest challenges and it is the principal reason I live in the west. I am willing to drive many miles, expose a lot of film, wait untold hours, camp out to be somewhere at sunrise, make many return trips to get what I am after.”
She continued her work as a photographer into her advanced years despite the fact the was crippled by arthritis. Just a few weeks before her death, at the age of 88, she leaned out the window of a small aircraft that was flying low over the Rio Grande Valley to capture what she wanted on film and make one of her last photographs.
She received honorary doctorates at both Colorado and New Mexico State universities, and a State Arts Awards in New Mexico. The art award honored her 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.”
Although she was highly distinguished as a young woman, she worked for many decades without much recognition at all. However, during the 1970’s, when the interest in photographic collection piqued, she once again began to receive recognition for her work. In 1975 she received a Guggenheim grant to make hand-coated, platinum prints, the process in which she had a lifelong interest and accomplishment. Consequently, her work was once again acclaimed and shown in several national exhibits.
Note: While it may be difficult to find, many libraries do have it. The Enduring Navajo is one of the most beautiful books I have ever laid my hand on. I actually did part of my Master’s degree dissertation on her work. Very beautiful and inspiring.