The en­dur­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Laura Gilpin

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - 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

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