April 22, 1894 – Laura Gilpin
The great American photographer Ansel Adams wrote:… “Laura Gilpin is one of the most important photographers of our time“.
Lesbians probably began taking photographs almost as soon as the medium was invented in 1839, but the record of those images has been obscured by time, disinterest, and hostility. For some, the term “lesbian photography” presents a complicated reality. Yet, there are early photographs made by women who loved other women. The most significant of these early images are those that reflect lesbian iconography, convey relationships, or show the photographer looking at and recording her beloved. How pre-Stonewall lesbian women might behave in public depended on a combination of factors, including economics, geographic location, race, ethnicity, and position in time. Paris, with its lack of inhibiting laws and long history of independent women, was a haven for lesbians decades before it became the expatriate destination of choice in the 1920s. Greenwich Village became the spot during World War II.
Southwestern photographer Laura Gilpin studied and worked in Greenwich Village before returning to Colorado to work. She is best known for her photographs of the Navajo and Pueblo nations and her Southwestern landscapes, but she also frequently shot Elizabeth W. Forster, her lover of 50 years. Gilpin felt that she needed to photograph Forster in a group setting, as if she were just anyone.
Her father came from Philadelphia and was involved in cattle ranching. She told a journalist that her father was a friend of the great Western landscape photographer William Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942) although couldn’t remember meeting him until after she had her own photography career.
Although she moved to Colorado to be with her husband, Gilpin’s mother longed for the more cultured big cities. Gilpin’s birthplace was in a home in Austin Bluffs, some 65 miles (105 km) from their ranch at Horse Creek. This was the closest place that had a doctor, and since this was her first child Mrs. Gilpin did not want to take any chances.
In 1903, for her 12th birthday, Gilpin received a brownie camera from her parents, and she used it constantly for years. In 1904, her mother sent her to visit her closest friend and Gilpin’s namesake, Laura Perry, in St. Louis where the World’s Fair was being held. Perry was blind, and it was Gilpin’s task to describe every exhibit to her in detail. She later wrote: “The experience taught me the kind of observation I would have never learned otherwise“. They visited the fair every other day for a month, and Gilpin later wrote: “The experience taught me the kind of observation I would have never learned otherwise”.
Her mother encouraged her at an early age to study music, and she was educated at eastern boarding schools, including the New England Conservatory of Music, from 1905-1910. On her first trip to the East her mother took her to NYC to have her portrait taken by well-known photographer Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), also gay. When she decided to become a photographer, Gilpin asked Käsebier to be her mentor and they developed a lifelong friendship. Käsebier was known for her images of women, her portraits of Native Americans, and her promotion of photography as a career for women.
In 1916 Gilpin moved to Manhattan to study photography. She lived with Brenda Putnam, a lesbian sculptor who was living, sculpting, and teaching in New York City at the time. They were briefly lovers, but it was the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship for Gilpin and Putnam, who supported each other’s work and discussed art together. Gilpin studied sculpture with Putnam and would often photograph her works. The two artists stayed in close contact even after Gilpin left NYC for the Southwest.
She returned to Colorado Springs in 1918 after becoming seriously ill from the influenza epidemic. Her mother hired Forster as a nurse to care for her. They remained together, with occasional separations for available jobs, until Forster’s death in 1972. After Gilpin recovered, she opened her own commercial photography studio in Colorado Springs.
Gilpin made her earliest dated autochome in 1908 when she was 17-years-old. Since this process had only become widely available that year, she showed remarkable talent as a photographer for a teenage girl at that time. When she decided she wanted to seriously study photography, Käsebier advised her to go to at the Clarence White School in New York City. She learned the techniques and craft of her trade. She deeply admired White, whom she later called: “one of the greatest teachers I have ever known in any field”. Her early work was in the Pictorialist style, but by the 1930s she had moved away from the soft-focus look and found her true vision in the peoples and landscapes of the American Southwest, and she published several books on the region. Like Käsebier, she made her money taking portraits, but in the mid-1930s she began to receive critical acclaim for her photographs of the Navajo and Pueblo peoples and for her landscapes. By the end of that decade she was exhibiting photos in shows throughout the United States and in Europe.
She became one of the great masters of the art of platinum printing, and many of her platinum prints can now be seen in museums around the world. Gilpin:
I have always loved the platinum printing process. It’s the most beautiful image one can get. It has the longest scale and one can get the greatest degree of contrast. It’s not a difficult process; it just takes time.
Between 1945-1975 her work was seen in more than one hundred one-person and group exhibits.
During World War II, Gilpin was publicity director for Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, where she artistically represented commercial subjects and discovered aerial photography.
Gilpin moved to Santa Fe in 1946. She published several books, most notably The Enduring Navaho, which was released in 1968. She was praised for her record of an adapting culture that others said was dying. Gilpin applied compassion to the relationship between the landscape and the native people, a trait that distinguished her from most male landscape photographers of the West. Gilpin was one of the first women to capture the landscape of the West on film and to comment on the interconnectedness between the environment and human activity. Hefting heavy camera equipment, she trekked great distances by foot, jeep, or plane to reach remote locations in pursuit of views, often flying dangerously low in airplanes to achieve her aerial shots. Unbounded by physical risks and societal restrictions, Gilpin worked well into her 80s.
Her career spanned more than six decades. Gilpin deftly used her chosen medium, black-and-white photography, to accentuate both the grand expanses of the Western landscape as well as the individual faces of the Native people who lived there. Through her elegant photographs, she emerged as a celebrated chronicler of the cultural geography of the American Southwest.
In 1974 the governor of New Mexico awarded her the first Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts. Gilpin continued to be very active as a photographer and as a participant in the Santa Fe arts scene until her death in 1979. In 2012, she was named to the Colorado Hall of Fame.
Gilpin’s archives are housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.