The enduring photographer Laura Gilpin
Anew exhibit of 19 photographs by Laura Gilpin includes two vintage images from 1919 that demonstrate her proficiency with early printmaking processes: The Willow, a gum-palladium print; and Untitled (Sunday Morning, Chester, Nova Scotia), a platinum print. The show at Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd., which opens on Friday, June 23, also offers Gilpin’s 1932 closeup portrait The Little Medicine Man, the wonderfully detailed Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Steps of the Castillo from the same year, and the dramatic Picuris Church that she shot in 1961. Viewers witness an experimental mindset in the 1929 Self-Portrait ,in which Gilpin somehow photographed her own hands holding a small print of her 1924 photo Untitled (Tree Limbs in Snow).
Her superb sense of composition and her facility with camera exposures are on display in Storm Over
La Bajada, as she was able to preserve detail both in the black clouds and in the darkened foreground landscape. And Summer Hogan in Cove Area is an intimate cultural portrait of a family on the Navajo reservation, which the photographer explored after she and her lifelong companion, Elizabeth (Betsy) Forster, were stranded there with a flat tire in 1930. That work culminated in what is arguably her opus magnum: The Enduring Navaho, which was published in 1968.
“The way she got to know the Navajo is because Betsy Forster, who was my great-aunt, got a job as a nurse at the Red Rock Trading Post on the reservation in 1931,” said Jerry Richardson, a Museum of New Mexico Foundation trustee and retired attorney who was Gilpin’s friend and the executor of her estate following her 1979 death. He first met the photographer on a visit to Santa Fe when he was four years old, and the two became friends much later, when he worked with her on her will and estate matters. “Laura would remark to me about how much photography had changed. There were cameras with automatic advances, and fashion photographers would do these shoots like zap, zap, zap, click, click, click. Of course, if you take 150 images, you’re going to get a few good ones. By contrast, she and my great-aunt took off to start her book project The Río Grande: River of Destiny, and it was right after the Second World War when gasoline was rationed and film was hard to come by — so basically every photo she took, she only had one shot to get what she wanted. When Laura attended the Clarence White School in New York, she didn’t just study photography; she studied design. It was a comprehensive approach to learning photography and treating it as an art. So she learned the importance of choosing the image on an 8 x 10 camera, where the image is upside-down on the ground glass — but that process can help you abstract into dark and light and come up with a strong design.”
Photographer Herbert Lotz, who met Gilpin shortly after he moved to Santa Fe in 1970, agreed. “I also worked with view cameras and that makes perfect sense to me. When I studied photography at the Art
Institute of Chicago, we worked with the 4 x 5 and design was a large part of it, rather than simply the impact of the image.”
Gilpin’s vision was anchored in her sympathies to both landscape and people. In that way, The Río Grande: River of Destiny, published in 1949, is a wonderfully multidimensional portrait. Her hundreds of photos taken from the river’s Rocky Mountains source to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico depict not just the river and its varying landscapes but the people and their buildings and their artworks. “I think she was very willing to see,” Lotz said. “She was very willing to look and to see, and a lot of people are not that way; they’re just trying to create an image with their heads. Here in Santa Fe, I’ve always felt I was walking in her footsteps and that if I could live the life of anyone, it would be Laura Gilpin.”
Lotz treasures a print given to him by Gilpin. Taken in 1921, it shows a pair of swans on the water, their necks outlining a perfect heart shape. “When I first got to Santa Fe in 1970, I did some graduate work at the University of New Mexico, and I worked with [Prof.] James Craft. What I got from my recollection of that time is that Laura didn’t get a lot of credit from Van Deren Coke [founding director of the University of New Mexico Museum of Art] and that gang. They were much more into the guy photographers. But the natural intuitive quality of the way Laura framed her images, I thought, was just extraordinary. There was a grace to that. I just think that’s a gift that people get, and the people at UNM never gave her much credit. It felt like she had been pushed aside and it was not fair, because her work was as good as anyone’s, if not better.”
The current exhibition has vintage platinum, gelatin silver, and Gavelux prints (a platinum-look silver paper) showing a range of subject and emotion. “Being trained as a Pictorialist, she started with large format, 8 x 10 and platinum contact prints,” said gallerists David Scheinbaum and Janet Russek in an email. “She was taught to use the platinum, palladium process and various papers for their ability to express ‘mood’ over ‘sharpness.’ As her work evolved from landscape and portraiture to more documentary concerns, as in the work with the Navajo, the gelatin silver prints expressed more clarity and sharpness.” Gilpin, the curators said, is considered “a true master of the platinum process.”
Gilpin was born on her parents’ ranch near Colorado Springs in 1891. At twelve, she was developing the pictures she took with a Brownie camera. In her twenties, she started and ran a successful turkey business, raising enough money to attend the Clarence H. White School of Photography, which her mentor, Gertrude Käsebier, had recommended to her. In 1918, she fell ill during the influenza epidemic, and she returned to Colorado. Her mother hired nurse Betsy Forster, and the two were soon inseparable. After her recovery, Gilpin worked as a professional photographer in Colorado Springs, making most of her money with portraits. One of her first books was 1941’s The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle. It features Gilpin’s photos of Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and the Pajarito Plateau as well as shots of Acoma, San Ildefonso, and other contemporary pueblos. One of the book’s images of Native people is in the current exhibition, where it’s titled The Corn Grinding Song, Mesa Verde National Park, 1925.
Gilpin had a difficult time making a living during the Great Depression, according to a biography by Michael Ann Sullivan on the website of the Office of the State Historian. It wasn’t until 1942 that she found a steady and well-paying job. That was at the Boeing Aircraft Plant in Wichita, Kansas, where she worked as director of publicity. She took pictures of all kinds of things, including visiting dignitaries and pin-up girls, but her favorite job was taking aerial photographs from a B-29 aircraft. She settled in Santa Fe in 1946. She and Forster first had a rental on El Caminito. Ten years later, they bought their house, a pre-1928 adobe, at 409 Camino del Monte Sol.
Temples in the Yucatan: A Camera Chronicle of Chichen Itza and The Río Grande: River of Destiny were published in the late 1940s. Then, in 1950, Gilpin and Forster went back to the Navajo Reservation. The photographer began work on her new book, The Enduring Navaho, organizing it into four sections — “The Navaho World,” “The Way of the People,” “The Coming Way,” and “The Enduring Way” — out of respect for the importance of the number four in the Navajo religion. In the preface to the book, Gilpin stated her hope “that these pages will stir an understanding of this energetic tribe, and awaken an interest in its imaginative and poetic background.” (Nineteen years earlier, in another preface, she insisted that The Río Grande: River of Destiny is a book “‘authored by the illustrator’ rather than ‘illustrated by the author,’” and yet her way with words was always admirably eloquent.)
Forster died in 1972, the year Gilpin began work on a book about Canyon de Chelly. She was in her late eighties and working with Richardson on straightening out some income-tax matters, on her will, and on her archive. “Getting Laura to talk about what would happen with her photos when she died was very hard because she was just sort of an indomitable spirit who seemed like she would live forever, so I used to just call her and drop over in the evenings and sit in front of the fire and talk,” he recalled. “We got to be good friends and I helped make sure people would come in to fix her meals so she could continue living in her own home.”
Ultimately Gilpin decided to bequeath her library and her collection of 22,000 negatives and 6,200 prints to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. “It was like pulling teeth for me to figure out what restrictions should be placed on her work, so the photos wouldn’t end up on coffee mugs,” Richardson said. “Laura was good friends of Mitch Wilder, who was the first director of the museum, and she would always say, ‘Mitch will know how to handle things,’ but then he died rather suddenly in 1979. She was eighty-eight and in failing health, and
Here in Santa Fe, I’ve always felt I was walking in her footsteps and that if I could live the life of anyone, it would be Laura Gilpin. — Photographer Herbert Lotz
she realized my point and we did finally make headway on the restrictions, literally two weeks before she died.”
Most of Gilpin’s negatives are large-format, but in her later years she used the smaller Kodak Medalist camera. “She had three or four of them,” Richardson said. “Her last few years, she was working on the project on Canyon de Chelly and she wanted to do some color and she used that camera.”
Efforts to publish the Canyon de Chelly book never came to fruition. “After the Amon Carter got her collection, they published one of Laura’s best-known photographs, a Navajo mother with a baby in a cradleboard. Then they let a magazine use it for their cover and the man who had been the baby was upset by that. The picture was taken with the 8 x 10 camera on a tripod so it’s not like she took it surreptitiously, but ultimately the museum got sued and had to work out a settlement. There was a big article in Art in America and after all of that, no publisher would touch the Canyon de Chelly project unless I could show permissions from the people Laura photographed. I did go to the Navajo reservation and tracked down some of those people, who were quite elderly. I did get some permissions. One Navajo man was offended. He said, ‘I told her she could take that picture. Why is it a problem now, all these years later?’ “She was known out there,” Richardson said. “When The Enduring
Navaho was published, you could find it in hogans all over the reservation. People liked and respected Laura. They knew that she was going to take something that was sensitive to them and their culture. She was passionate about the Navajo and their plight. Years later, Laura would get a call from a Navajo family that was in Santa Fe and needed a place to stay, and they’d all come in and sleep on her living-room floor.”
Laura Gilpin: 1891-1979 Opening reception 5 p.m. Friday, June 23; then 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, Saturdays by appointment; exhibit through Aug. 26 Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd., 812 Camino Acoma, 505-988-5116