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Laura Gilpin

Laura Gilpin (1891---1979) was a photographer of the West. Born in a ranch in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she died in Santa Fe, New Mexico. However she studied with the eminent photography teacher Clarence H. White and renowned abstract artist Max Weber in New York [1].


Her parents were from well to do east coast and mid-western families. Gilpin’s father went west to become a never-quite-successful rancher with his brother, while her mother, who rather missed the culture of native St. Louis and Chicago, worked hard to ensure her daughter received a proper education. 


 In 1903, when she was 12, she was given a Kodak Brownie Camera; enthralled, she took it everywhere and photographed everything. A visit to a blind friend of her mother’s and her name sake, Laura Perry, to St. Louis during the World’s Fair in 1904 enabled Gilpin to really learn to see. For a month, she was the conduit of the fair experience for Perry thereby sharpening her powers of observation [2]. Moved in particular by a Philippine village display at the fair, she began her lifelong interest in native cultures [3].


In 1905, Gilpin’s mother took her back east to have her portrait taken by the famed pictorialist, Gertrude Käsebier, also a native Coloradoan. Earlier, Käsebier was part of the Photo-Secessionist’s at Steiglitz’ Gallery who avidly pushed for photography to be accepted as an art form. Later, whereupon Gilpin decided upon a photography career, she asked Käsebier for help, and they became lifelong friends [4].


Gilpin was sent to private schools in the east from 1905 to 1910, and eventually to the New England Academy of Music [5]. Though she was not an exceptional talent, she developed a deep appreciation of music and died with a large collection of classical music recordings [6]


In 1916, while studying at the Clarence H. White School, she taught herself how to coat paper with platinum, a technique that she used throughout her life. Her photographs thus attain a rich velvety quality. Though a laborious process, she believed the results she achieved in the widely tonal photographs to be worthy of the effort. 


Contracting a severe case of flu in 1918, her mother hired a nurse, Elizabeth Forster. The two became lifelong companions until Forster’s death in 1972. The two would later spend time on the reservation ministering and photographing the Navajo [7]. A book that was a fifteen year project became the celebrated The Enduring Navajo, recording a culture in a transitional time between the old and the new ways. 


Gilpin, as so many artists did in the era of the Great Depression between the World Wars, struggled to make a living.  Teaching photography, taking portraits, and working at Boeing in Wichita, Kansas, helped keep her solvent. Her brother too worked at Boeing, and she was able to live with him. The photography work she did at Boeing was demanding [8]


Leaving Wichita in 1946, she obtained a contract for her third book, The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, published in 1948.  It was that same year that she met Margaret Lefranc, though it was not until the 1970s in Santa Fe that they became inseparable [9]


In 1974, Gilpin was awarded her first major retrospective at the Fine Arts Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, and also the very first Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts in New Mexico. One year later, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship at age 84. A second retrospective followed at the Amon Carter Museum, where her archives, library, negatives, and prints were bequeathed [10]. Lefranc was with her when she died. Of her, Ansel Adams wrote this posthumously: “She had a highly individualistic eye. I don’t have the sense that she was influenced except by the land itself.” [11]




[4] Ibid.


[6] Katz, Lois.  A Lifetime of Imaging:  The Art of Margaret Lefranc.  Miami:  Nouveau Ventures Unlimited, Inc., in association with the Margaret Lefranc Art Foundation, 2007. p. 222



[9]Katz, Lois.  A Lifetime of Imaging:  The Art of Margaret Lefranc.  Miami:  Nouveau Ventures Unlimited, Inc., in association with the Margaret Lefranc Art Foundation, 2007. P. 216

[9] Ibid. p.221

[10] p.2

[11] Ibid.

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