Gilpin, Laura (1891–1979)

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Gilpin, Laura (1891–1979)

American photographer who documented the lives of the southwest Navajo, among other subjects, and gained renown in the last decade of her life after 70 years in her field. Born on April 22, 1891, in Austin Bluffs, Colorado; died on November 30, 1979, in Santa Fe, New Mexico; daughter of Frank Gilpin (a furniture maker) and Emma (Miller) Gilpin; attended Baldwin School, 1905–07; attended Rosehall, 1907–09; attended New England Conservatory of Music, 1910; attended Clarence H. White School of Photography, 1916–17; never married; lived with Elizabeth "Betsy" Forster (d. 1972); no children.

Began experimenting with photography (1903); resolved to become a professional photographer and entered Clarence H. White School of Photography (1916); met Elizabeth Forster (1918); began documenting the Navajo of the southwest (1931); published first book (1941); awarded honorary doctorate from University of New Mexico (1970); awarded Guggenheim Fellowship (1974).

Frank and Emma Gilpin married in Chicago on April 23, 1890, and shortly thereafter moved to Colorado where their first child Laura was born in Austin Bluffs on April 22, 1891. Emma Gilpin was an ambitious woman who enjoyed intellectual pursuits, while her husband enjoyed the challenges of frontier life. Their daughter was influenced by both these perspectives. When Laura was still an infant, the Gilpins moved to Perry Park in the mountains near Colorado Springs. A son John was born on May 10, 1892, but died five months later. The family relocated to Manitou Park, where Emma tried to recover from the loss. For several years, Frank ran cattle and managed a summer hotel. When he did not find his fortune in ranching, the family moved again in 1896 to Colorado Springs, where he managed a mine. This pattern of relocation and failed business ventures dominated their lives. Three years later, on July 24, 1899, Emma had another son, Francis Gilpin, Jr. At the time, Laura was eight years old.

She was given a Brownie camera on her 12th birthday and, that Christmas, received a developing tank from her parents. These gifts began what was to be her lifelong passion for the art and science of photography. The year was 1903, and the family now lived in Mexico where Frank was managing a mine while Laura and her brother were left in the care of the directors of Laura's private school. Two years later, Laura was sent to Pennsylvania to attend the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. In 1907, she transferred to another private school in Greenwich, Connecticut, but she never excelled in her academic work. With the complication of a severe illness in 1908, Laura left Connecticut for good in 1909 and returned to Colorado Springs. She never earned a high school diploma.

In these years, Gilpin cultivated her photographic skills and taught herself how to make autochromes (plates that had been created by the Lumiere brothers, pioneers of photographic techniques, only a year earlier). With these plates, which were coated with colored dyes to create soft-colored images, Gilpin made noteworthy portraits and still-lifes. Having earlier studied the violin in high school and shown some talent for music, Gilpin returned to the East Coast in 1910 to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Music and photography, she found, had much in common as forms of artistic expression. "Photography uses waves of light, composed and harmonized to express an idea," she wrote. "Music uses waves of sound for the same purpose."

After only a few months, Gilpin was forced to leave the conservatory when another failed business venture meant another family relocation and no money to keep her in school. Returning home to her parents' new cattle ranch in Austin, Colorado, Laura started a poultry business, raising turkeys to contribute to the family income. Her enterprise proved surprisingly successful, although she gave most of the profits to her father. In 1915, the Gilpins sold the ranch and returned to Colorado Springs.

The same year, Gilpin traveled to California to visit the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exhibition in San Diego, where she renewed her interest in photography. While in California, she met Anne Simon , a musician and poet, who became a close friend and inspired in Gilpin the desire for artistic excellence. They remained in contact after Gilpin returned to Colorado and Anne to Washington, D.C. Deeply attached to the older woman, Gilpin credited her with having "awakened my spirit." Indeed, Anne quickly became the most important person in Gilpin's life. When Anne died suddenly in August 1916, Gilpin became despondent and traveled alone to the Grand Canyon to mourn the death in solitude. In her grief, she resolved to follow the path that she believed Anne wished her to follow, that of a serious artist engaged in the study of photography.

Genius is nothing but an uncommon aptitude for patience.

—Laura Gilpin

Gilpin moved to New York to study at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in October 1916. In New York, she made the acquaintance of sculptor Brenda Putnam , one of Anne's friends, and moved in with her and two other women artists. Putnam would remain a confidant, advisor, and supporter for the rest of Gilpin's life. At school, Gilpin studied the pictorial style of photography emphasized by Clarence White, a contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz. Pictorialism, which would dominate most of Gilpin's work in the 1920s, was characterized by softfocus, romantic images conveying strong emotional impact through careful composition. Although she thoroughly enjoyed her studies with White, Gilpin contracted a severe case of influenza in the fall of 1917 and was forced to leave New York and return to Colorado Springs, ending her formal studies.

Elizabeth Forster , a 32-year-old registered nurse from South Carolina, was hired to look after 27-year-old Gilpin in early 1918. As Elizabeth—"Betsy," as Laura called her—nursed her back to health, the two developed an intense, loving relationship which would affect both their lives for the next half-century, an alliance each would call the most important in her life. The two women shared similar interests in literature, music, exploring the outdoors, and in maintaining their independent careers. Laura remained in Betsy's care until the fall of 1918, when Betsy left Colorado Springs to join the Red Cross. She returned the next year. During the next several years, Betsy and Laura were a familiar sight at town social events, and Frank and Emma Gilpin accepted Betsy as a member of their family.

Gilpin's professional career began after her recovery in 1918. She opened a studio in Colorado Springs and obtained a position teaching at the Broadmoor Art Academy in town. Most of her commissioned works were portraits, first of friends, then, as her reputation expanded, of families. She also produced many fine landscapes of the Colorado desert. With considerable success as a commercial artist, Gilpin submitted her prints for exhibition in galleries and museums throughout the country. In 1922, Gilpin traveled to Europe with her old friend Brenda Putnam. She studied classical art and architecture on her own in many European art museums, and returned to Colorado several months later with renewed energy and motivation. For the remainder of the decade, Gilpin continued working as a commercial photographer while her reputation spread across the United States and Europe. "Despite her geographical isolation and her increasing load of local commissions," writes Martha Sandweiss , "Laura remained active in the national and international photographic world."

In 1927, Emma Gilpin died, leaving Laura as her father's only means of emotional support. Within a few years, Frank's advancing age and deteriorating health led to his financial dependence on his daughter as well. This did not diminish Gilpin's professional activities. By 1930, her work had been shown in museums and galleries from Honolulu to Edinburgh. That same year, she applied unsuccessfully for a Guggenheim fellowship, which had never been awarded to a photographer, since photography was not then considered one of the fine arts.

In 1931, Betsy Forster moved to Red Rock, on the Navajo Reservation, to become a field nurse for the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs. Visiting her often, Gilpin began to photograph the members of the Navajo community, developing a great understanding and empathy with the Navajo and earning their trust and admiration. Her images of the Navajo were direct and in sharp focus, a departure from the style of her previous pictorial work.

In the early 1930s, as the Depression strengthened its grip on the American economy, Gilpin slowed down the pace of her exhibitions in order to concentrate on earning a living. In the fall of 1931, she presented a series of slides at an archaeological conference held at the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Jesse Nusbaum, director of the laboratory, wrote her: "In selection of subjects, in photographic quality, and from the artistic standpoint, your lantern slides are in a class by themselves, seldom approached and never excelled. The particular set shown here… merits wide distribution among the scientific and educational institutions of this country."

In 1932, Gilpin again applied for a Guggenheim, intent on making a series of slides of the Yucatan for educational purposes. Again her application was denied. But Gilpin journeyed to the Yucatan anyway and photographed the ruins at Chichen Itza. She was able to exhibit her Yucatan images at several different museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

As part of the Depression-induced cutbacks at the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs, Betsy Forster lost her job at Red Rock in April 1933. Gilpin urged her to assemble a small book about her nursing work with the Native Americans, consisting of Betsy's letters and Laura's photographs. Before Forster could begin the work, however, she obtained a new position with the Emergency Recovery Administration (ERA) in Park County, Colorado, and soon became the state supervisor of the ERA's nursing program. The next year, Gilpin presented her work both of the Yucatan and of the American southwest at the Library of Congress. This exhibition resulted in the sale of 42 of her prints, which became part of the Library's permanent collection.

In 1935, Gilpin and Forster began a poultry business which briefly proved successful. When the ERA disbanded in 1936, Forster concentrated all her efforts on the turkey farm, but in 1939 the poultry business failed (possibly due to sabotage by a competitor), and Forster started a guest house for vacationers in Colorado. In 1941, Gilpin's first book, The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle, was published; its images, depicting

the southwest and its impressive history before the Europeans arrived, represented 20 years of her photographic work.

The following year, Forster was forced to resume her nursing career when the boarding house she had been leasing was sold. In November, Gilpin, who wanted to contribute to the country's war effort, was offered a job as photographer for the public-relations department at the Boeing Company in Wichita, Kansas. But events spiraled downward. In July 1943, Frank Gilpin died. In August 1944, Forster was diagnosed with acute encephalitis and, after hospitalization, was further diagnosed with polio as well. When her health deteriorated further, Betsy was declared legally incompetent and soon moved to her sister's home in Nebraska. Though Laura wanted to care for Betsy herself, she was not allowed to do so, probably because she was not a blood relative. Another tragedy came in 1945, when Laura's brother Francis was killed in an automobile accident.

Gilpin had relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, that fall. The following year, Forster, who had mostly recovered from her illnesses (the declaration of mental incompetency was annulled), moved to Santa Fe. After 27 years of companionship, she and Laura were finally able to set up a household together. Both came to love the tolerant, open atmosphere of Santa Fe, remaining in that town for the rest of their lives.

To distract herself from her sorrows, Gilpin had traveled to New York, where she signed a contract for a second book, to document the course of the Rio Grande. The project took four years to complete, during which time she found a publisher for a third book on the Yucatan. She combined her traveling for both books and was rewarded in 1948 with the release of Temples in Yucatan by Hastings House, which was followed in 1949 by the publication of The Rio Grande: River of Destiny by the firm of Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. Both works were praised by archaeologists, anthropologists, and geographers for their depth, spirit and clarity.

In 1947, Gilpin made a third application for a Guggenheim and received her third rejection. Elected an active member of the Indian Arts Fund, by the following year she was a trustee and vice-chair. She continued her work with the organization for a number of years, illustrating her concern and commitment to supporting Native American artists. Although Gilpin had received considerable acclaim, in the late 1940s she and Forster, who remained too ill from polio to work, still struggled financially. With the concern and support of close friends, however, Gilpin was able to continue her photographic work. In the prospering economy of the 1950s, she returned to commercial photography, although true financial success continued to elude her. She struggled to find new projects and sought a publisher for a book she wanted to produce on the Navajo people. Her fortunes continued in much the same vein throughout the 1960s.

However, in 1968 her last book, The Enduring Navaho, finally found a publisher in the University of Texas Press. Combining prints made from the 1930s to the 1960s, the work was dedicated to Betsy Forster, whom Gilpin credited with leading her to an understanding of the Navajo people. Thoroughly integrating the photographic illustrations with the text (adapted from Betsy's letters written 30 years earlier), Gilpin created a book which found scholarly and popular praise as a documentary history of the 20th-century Navajo. More important to her, however, was the admiration the book received from the Navajo.

In the winter of 1969, Gilpin was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico as "one of the pioneers in the recognition of photography as a fine art." The award encouraged her to apply for the fourth time to the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship, although, yet again, her application was turned down. Despite this disappointment, Gilpin was finally finding the recognition she had long sought. The Enduring Navaho had introduced her work to a new generation of photographers and galleries were anxious to exhibit her prints. But Betsy Forster's health continued to deteriorate. Gilpin, now in her late 70s and facing her own declining health, was taxed to her limits to tend to Betsy's needs but was reluctant to place her life companion in a nursing home. In autumn of 1971, Gilpin was forced to place her under professional care. Betsy Forster died only a few months later, on January 1, 1972. She and Gilpin had been together over 50 years.

After Forster's death, Gilpin sought to fill the void with a new photographic project. She was given a grant for a book on Canyon de Chelly, but, due to advancing age and ailing health, she did not complete the work. Still, her reputation continued to expand during the 1970s, and in 1974 at long last she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. With the endowment, she was to produce platinum prints, much as she had created in her first years as a photographer. But Gilpin was unable to begin this final project, as the demands of visiting with her everincreasing followers kept her from her work. In 1977, she received the Governor's Award in the Arts and Humanities from the governor of Colorado; two years later, a documentary film was produced on her career. On November 30, 1979, Laura Gilpin, a photographer for more than 70 years, died of heart failure at her home in Santa Fe. At the end of a life lived largely in obscurity, she was hailed by Ansel Adams as "one of the most important photographers of our time."


Sandweiss, Martha A. Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace. Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1986.

suggested reading:

Gilpin, Laura. The Enduring Navaho. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

——. The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle. NY: Hastings House, 1941.

——. The Rio Grande: River of Destiny. NY: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1949.

——. Temples in Yucatan: A Camera Chronicle of Chichen Itza. NY: Hastings House, 1948.

Heather Moore , freelance writer in the history of photography and women's studies, Northampton, Massachusetts