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Margaret Lefranc and Laura Gilpin

Musical Trees (1978) was painted after Margaret went with Laura Gilpin to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a vast park in northeastern Arizona on Navajo tribal lands. Though they frequently exchanged paintings and photographs, Laura wanted this one in particular for her collection and gave Margaret in return her Canyon de Chelly (1976). Before her death, Gilpin returned Musical Trees to Lefranc.

When Laura Gilpin wanted to go to Canyon de Chelly, Gilpin asked Margaret Lefranc to drive her to round out a book she was writing. “She took pictures of me and I took a lot of photographs of her. That was in 1976. She had great difficulty in standing. She had to use a crutch, and it’s kind of difficult to use that great big camera she had…while hanging onto a crutch. So I helped. She got what she needed and developed everything in her darkroom.” [1]

 Even at the age of eighty-six, Gilpin insisted on sleeping under the November stars in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly. Gilpin was relieved as Margaret’s Renault carried all of the cameras plus their camping equipment and food. Enduring the elements, Laura stood and photographed, balancing her huge camera wherever she could manage it, in order to capture one incredible vista after another. Her major photographic study of Canyon de Chelly was to become Gilpin’s final comment on the Navajo way of life. When she was eight-four, her body of work eventually earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Wanting to build a studio in front of her home for Margaret to paint and to be closer, Gilpin also wished to tutor Margaret into becoming a photographer. Lefranc had to decline. Since six years old, Lefranc always remained true to her own dream as a painter—and there was no time to do both. She was also in the process of building her own studio with windows facing Atalaya Mountains—the mountains she loved and painted so often in different temperaments.

In her own writings about Gilpin, Margaret noted that the photographer finally took her advice and hired a gifted young woman, Mary Peck, who learned how to develop photographs exactly the way Gilpin wanted her to—that is, the way Gilpin developed them herself. Then they were given to Eleanor Caponigro to design the catalogue for Gilpin’s Canyon de Chelly book. “Laura also insisted that I illustrate her book and create chapter headings…”

According to Sina Brush, who began working with Laura Gilpin as her personal assistant in 1973, in her book Working with Laura Gilpin, Photographer [2], “Laura’s …venerable history included photographs made at the canyon over many years, so Canyon de Chelly was her ‘coming home’ project, the final statement of her life filled with affection for her friends…As she worked, it brought back endless happy memories traveling with Betsy on the reservation off and on for years, every trip a satisfying wonderful excursion for two dear friends, no doubt greeted everywhere by Navajo remembering them fondly…a tender remembrance for them of earlier days.” [3] Laura added, “Everything I’ve published so far had some sort of grief…I’m just hoping this Canyon de Chelly book will come closer to my ideals of the book I’d like to turn out before I finish.” [4] 

According to Margaret Lefranc, the School of American Research agreed to underwrite Laura’s book. It paid Margaret three hundred and fifty dollars for illustrating the chapter headings. Caponigro was very pleased with the drawings. The University of Arizona Press was going to publish the book [5]. When the book was about to be published, a Navajo man said he was going to sue because, according to the Navajo religions, if a picture was taken of someone, the photograph would steal the soul of the person who was photographed. He said that he was going to sue for the loss of his soul for a million dollars. In the end, they simply stopped the publication [6]. Laura had gotten verbal approval for her photographs. She never took a photograph without getting the subject’s permission, but at the time most of those women with babies did not write or read [7]. The book on Canyon de Chelly was never published. Laura never spoke of the bitter disappointment—except with her best friend Margaret Lefranc.


[1] Margaret Lefranc interviews with Sandra McKenzie, 1994–1996.

[2] Sina Brush, Working with Laura Gilpin, Photographer, pg. 175, published by Tomboy Press © Sina Brush.

[3] Sina Brush, Op. cit., pg. 171.

[4] Sina Brush, Working with Laura Gilpin, Photographer, Op. cit., pg. 175.

[5] Lois Katz, A Lifetime of Imaging: The Art of Margaret Lefranc, Nouveau Ventures Unlimited, Inc., in association with the Margaret Lefranc Art Foundation, pg. 220

[6] Margaret Lefranc, interview with Mark Simmons, September 29, 1996.

[7]Lois Katz, A Lifetime of Imaging: The Art of Margaret Lefranc, pg. 220, Op. cit.

 Margaret Lefranc, interviews with McKenzie, 1994–1996, Op .cit.

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