Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) was an American photographer best known for her southwestern landscapes and for her photographic studies of the Pueblo and Navajo Indians.
Laura Gilpin was born in Austin Bluffs, Colorado, on April 22, 1891. Although she briefly attended eastern boarding schools, she grew up in Colorado Springs and always thought of herself as a westerner. Even as a child she enjoyed exploring the mountains around her home. In 1903 Gilpin got a Brownie camera, which she used the following year to photograph the St. Louis World's Fair, and about 1909 she began experimenting with autochromes, a new color photographic process developed in France. Living on her family's ranch on the western slope of the Rockies from 1911 to 1915, Gilpin raised poultry and continued making pictures. By the time she went to New York in 1916 to study at the Clarence H. White School of Photography (with money saved from her poultry business) she was an accomplished amateur photographer.
Gilpin studied with White for two years, then returned home to Colorado to set up a commercial photography studio. While earning her living doing portraits and advertising work, she began exploring the Southwest and making pictures of the Pueblo Indians and the ruins of their Anasazi ancestors. These early, atmospheric pictures showed the influence of her training with White, a leading pictorial photographer who emphasized mood rather than detail in his photographs. Gilpin later moved away from this soft-focus approach and adopted a more straightforward, hard-edged style for photographing the Southwest.
Gilpin's long-term involvement with the Navajo began in 1930 when she ran out of gas on their reservation while on a camping trip with her companion Elizabeth Forster.
Deeply impressed by the Navajo people who came to their aid, Forster became a field nurse on the reservation. She lived in Red Rock, Arizona, for two years. Gilpin later became a frequent visitor to the reservation and, through the contacts made by her friend, began to photograph the Navajo people. Her pictures of families, trading posts, hogans, and ceremonies form a compassionate record of traditional Navajo life.
After Forster lost her job in 1933 financial difficulties and a number of photographic projects kept Gilpin away from the reservation for 16 years. 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. 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 monumental study of the Rio Grande and the people along its banks, came out the following year.
In 1950 Gilpin returned to the Navajo reservation to gather more pictures for a book. Although she initially thought it would be a quick and easy job, her work on the project took 18 years. She travelled all over the reservation, as she could spare time away from her commercial business, gathering information and pictures that would help her tell the story of the Navajo peoples' adaptation to modern American life. Eventually, she came to realize the great importance of traditional beliefs to the Navajo people, and her project began to focus on how traditions could be maintained in a rapidly changing world. The Enduring Navaho, which finally appeared in 1968, was widely hailed by anthropologists and by the Navajo people themselves as a truthful and compassionate record of Navajo life.
During the 1970s, Gilpin regained much of the recognition in national photographic circles that she had enjoyed in the 1920s. 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.
The only one of Gilpin's books that is still in print is The Enduring Navaho (1968). A full-length biography and wide selection of pictures can be found in Martha A. Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace (1986). Gilpin's photographic estate is now housed in the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. □