Gilpin, Laura

American (1891-1979)


Laura Gilpin, famous for her images of Southwestern people and landscapes, came from a community of adventurer-explorers. Her father, Frank, left his genteel Baltimore family in 1880 to seek his fortune in Colorado. There, he befriended William Henry Jackson, the great landscape photographer, who often taught young Laura the names of animals, plants and rock formations they’d see while shooting with a brownie camera on horseback. These early lessons in observation were to prove useful; when finances prevented Gilpin from studying music, she turned to photography, having developed a keen eye at an early age. Gilpin’s education came at the hands of portrait photographer, Gertrude Kasebier, who agreed to mentor her at age 18, and from a few years at school in New York. When influenza forced her to return to Colorado, Gilpin recovered and then opened her own studio around 1919.

Gilpin’s earliest landscapes were influenced by the pictorialist school, but she quickly moved away from the soft-focus tradition. Against the custom of the time, Gilpin was not interested in capturing vast, open spaces as a way of luring people westward. Rather, she sought to photograph her home, exploring the land’s potential for supporting and shaping human life. As such, it was an easy step to photographs that captured the Navajo and Pueblo, peoples sustained and challenged by the Southwestern landscape. The Enduring Navajo (1968), Gilpin’s most famous project, traced the Native Americans’ ability to adapt to the natural environment in which they lived and garnered the photographer praise for her sensitive portrayal. Gilpin avidly continued capturing the land she loved until the end, making images from a helicopter over the Rio Grande only days before her death.