Laura Gilpin


July 20 - September 15, 2007

The Andrew Smith Gallery presents an exhibit of still lifes, landscapes and portraits by Laura Gilpin titled Masterworks, opening Friday, July 27, 2007. Laura Gilpin, whom Ansel Adams called "one of the most important photographers of our time," was a true westerner, independent and self-reliant throughout a life often marked by difficulties and financial insecurities. Born in 1891 and raised in Colorado Springs, she began photographing in 1903 at the age of twelve and continued until her death in Santa Fe in 1979. As one of the few significant women landscape photographers in the history of photography, Gilpin photographed the American Southwest for more than sixty years, creating an extraordinary document of the land and its people. A contemporary of Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and Georgia O'Keeffe, Gilpin is Santa Fe's most prominent photographer.

Laura Gilpin is best known for two bodies of work. Between 1917 and 1935 she made a series of Pictorial photographs printed on textured platinum and silver print papers. Her subjects were in soft focus of western landscapes, Mayan ruins, still lifes and portraits that exemplified the finest early twentieth century Photo-Secession art movement. Beginning in the early 1930's and continuing throughout her life, she made sharper images of Pueblo and Navaho Indians and Southwest lands. On view are masterworks reflecting her long career that mirrored the stylistic changes that occurred in American photography over three-quarters of a century. The exhibit continues through September 15, 2007.


Gilpin had a life long passion for platinum prints with their wide tonal range, rich velvety blacks and archival stability. She used platinum papers and textured silver paper almost exclusively through the 1935.

When she was in her early twenties, Gilpin was inspired by the photographs of Gertrude Käsebier, a family friend who was a member of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession Group. In 1916, many years after taking up photography she moved to New York and enrolled in the Clarence H. White School where she studied photography under White, Paul Anderson, and Max Weber. Influenced by White, Gilpin strove to capture the lasting essence of a subject, rather than a fleeting or temporal image, and to record the emotion of a scene rather than its literal appearance. Her friendship with a woman sculptor named Brenda Putnam, gave her insights into what it meant to be a working woman artist.

Back in Colorado Springs, Gilpin relied on familiar subject matter; portraits of friends, local landscapes and flower arrangements. The soft-focused, textured platinum prints she made in the 1920s reflect the turn-of-the-century Pictorialism in which she had been trained.

A masterpiece, "White Iris," 1926, confirms that by age thirty-five Gilpin was the equal of the greatest photographers of her time. Printed in rich black-brown tones on platinum paper, the composition excludes extraneous detail that might interfere with the perfect shape of the flower. The white bloom near the top of the photograph resembles scalloped shells. From the stem four buds rise like furled flags. Two leaves, nearly the same tone as the background, are defined by the thinnest white lines along their contours.

In Colorado Springs Gilpin found ordinary subjects to photograph and turn into platinum prints. Around 1920 she photographed "Playground at Day School," a scene of children playing quietly near a Tudor style house. Dappled sunlight illuminates the placid picture. Gilpin centered the composition on a little girl clambering up a swing set to join a group of boys sitting on top.

In the fall of 1924 Gilpin went on a camping trip through Southern Colorado and New Mexico with her two closest friends, Betsy Forster and Brenda Putnam. They visited Mesa Verde, Shiprock, Gallup, and the pueblos of Zuñi, Laguna, and San Ildefonso. In 1925 Gilpin returned to Mesa Verde to photograph a summer pageant among the ruins. Her early approach to photographing Indians was more romantic than documentary; her vision formed by nostalgia for an imagined golden age.

In the platinum print, "The House of the Cliff Dweller," 1925, a smiling Indian woman wearing traditional clothes looks out the window of a ruin. In the foreground a large clay pot acts as a link to the past, as well as a compositional counterbalance. Gilpin would later abandon this romantic approach in favor of straightforward documentation, but this photograph marks the beginning of more ambitious projects documenting the people and land of the southwest.

One of Gilpin's most beautiful photographs from this time is a soft-focused, atmospheric platinum print of a mountainous landscape titled "Sleeping Ute, Mesa Verde," (ca. 1920). Gilpin captured the high desert in a moment of a brooding drama by contrasting brilliant sunlight filtering through a dark tangle of juniper branches in the foreground.


In the 1930s Gilpin drove though northern New Mexico at the request of the Taylor Museum, a division of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, to take photographs for George Kubler's forthcoming book on the religious architecture of New Mexico and to photograph Hispanic folk art in which she was greatly interested. On this trip Gilpin photographed "Door at Ranchos de Taos Church," 1930, a stunning silver print of New Mexico's vernacular architecture. Gilpin printed it in light tones to emphasize the detailed carvings on the large wooden door set in an archway of adobe.

Pursuing her interests in architecture, sculptural form and cultural artifacts, Gilpin embarked on the first of three trips to the ruins on Chichén Itzá in 1932. In the Yucatán, as at Mesa Verde, she wanted to see how ancient life related to contemporary life. "One difficulty in photographing these great temples, " she wrote, "is to retain their remarkable proportions and decoration and the beautiful surface qualities of the material, and at the same time retain the austere and barbaric qualities which are also present."

In the powerful photograph, "Sunburst, The Castillo, Chichén Itzá," 1932, Gilpin contrasted the corner of a massive, stone hewn temple on the left of the photograph with sun rays streaming through the clouds toward a flat, undifferentiated landscape. Printed it as a silver bromide print on Gavelux paper, the photograph has an especially rich tonality.

From 1932 to 1934, Gilpin showed the Yucatán photographs at the Taylor Museum in Colorado Springs, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Library of Congress (which later purchased many of the prints). After a second trip to the Yucatán in 1946, she compiled the photographs and wrote an accompanying text for the book Temples in Yucatán: A Camera Chronicle of Chichén Itzá, published in 1947. She would make a final trip to the Yucatán in 1961.

Gilpin's landscape photographs are among her greatest accomplishments. Her sensitivity to the canyons, prairies, dunes and mountains of the west was apparent in her work from the beginning. Indeed, photographs of unspoiled wilderness areas account for a large portion of her work. Wherever she traveled, her artistic eye was sensitive to compositions within nature and the harmony which Westerners brought to their lives on the land. Although some of her finest landscapes were taken as part of larger projects, many others were simply an artistic response to the magnificent western countryside.

A month after her father's death in May 1945, Gilpin left Colorado Springs for New York where she signed a contract with Duell, Sloan & Pearce for a photographic book on the Rio Grande. The book was to be a portrait of the river and the land through which it flows. In the fall of 1945, Gilpin and her friend Betsy Forster moved to Santa Fe, which was closer to the areas she wanted to photograph. Gilpin traveled over 27,000 miles to create a photographic record of the Rio Grande from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to its effluence in the Gulf of Mexico. The Rio Grande: River of Destiny was published in 1949.

One of Gilpin's greatest photographs is the silver print, "The Rio Grande Yields its Surplus to the Sea," 1948. In this masterpiece of abstract minimalism the serpentine Rio Grande, shining like a lightning bolt on the dark delta, flows into the shimmering gulf waters where sea and sky merge imperceptibly.

"Storm Over La Bajada ," 1946, is Gilpin's finest New Mexico landscape. It was taken from the crest of La Bajada Hill, approximately 17 miles south of Santa Fe, overlooking the valley of the Keres pueblos. The silver print photograph contains a stunning range of tones that describe a thunderhead composed of many layers of clouds from which sunbeams and rain stream to earth.


Gilpin's most successful, rewarding, and historically important work was her documentation of the Navaho people. Her interest in the Navaho culture was a natural evolution from her work among the Pueblo Indians. Accompanying her friend Betsy Forster who was working as a field nurse on the Navaho reservation in Red Rock, Arizona, Gilpin was given an inside look into the Navaho world. Soon she became accepted in Red Rock as a woman who could be made privy to the confidences of Navaho life. Over the years, Gilpin visited there frequently to see Forster and to photograph the people.

By the 1930's, Gilpin's old romanticism had been replaced by an empathetic, straightforward portrayal of the Navaho's daily life. She continued documenting them through decades of change, provided a valuable visual record of a people who had been overlooked by the great photographic surveys of the federal government's Federal Security Administration. "The Indians obviously approve of the manner in which she portrays them, for there is a mutual respect and admiration apparent in the photographs," remarked photographer Anne Noggle. Gilpin brought a special empathy to the project since she and the Navaho people shared a strong sense of tradition, family ties and a keen love of the land.

"Ethel Kellywood", 1934, a silver bromide print on Gavelux paper, is a sensitive profile portrait of a young Navajo woman. The warm sepia tone of the photograph accentuates her calmness and timeless beauty. Gilpin's friendship with many of her subjects lasted over thirty years. As a result, there exists an intimacy in her portraits of Native people unlike that of any other artist.

One of Gilpin's most famous portraits is "A Navaho Silversmith," 1934. In this classic composition, the handsome artist seated at his work table, wears a fur hat, an earring, and a magnificent concho belt decorated with stamped silver buckles. Despite his threadbare clothes he conveys serene nobility.

Gilpin sought to reveal the strong character of the Navaho as they struggled to hold on to their traditions and at the same time adapt to the modern world. In her book The Enduring Navaho, published in 1968, Gilpin observes, records, and interprets through her photographs and text, the lives of the Navaho over an especially important period of time in their history. It was during those years that the Navaho faced a great necessity for change, "a change so great for them," according to Gilpin, "that we can scarcely comprehend it."

In the silver print "Mrs. Francis Nakai and Son," 1932, a young mother wearing a magnificent striped blanket and traditional dress leans against a wall. Her little son wears western style clothes. With half smiles they appear to be waiting patiently for something.

Two decades later Gilpin again photographed Mrs. Francis Nakai in "A Navaho Family," 1950. In this somber portrait the mother, now aged and sad, sits with her husband and grandchildren under an American flag, given to the family after their son, the little boy in Gilpin's earlier photo, was killed in World War II.

With the publication of The Enduring Navaho came two major exhibitions of Gilpin's Navaho photographs at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

After years of working in relative obscurity Gilpin relished her new status as a senior photographer in the 1970's. Her work schedule slackened as she took pleasure in her increasing celebrity and in inspiring younger photographers. Gilpin made her last photographic trip in September 1979 in a small plane over the Rio Grande Valley. Two months later, she died of heart failure at the age of 88.

Laura Gilpin's archive is housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Liz Kay

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