Gilpin was the daughter of Frank and Emma Gilpin. Her father came from Philadelphia and was involved in cattle ranching. In an interview she said her father was a friend of the great landscape photographer William Henry Jackson, although she does not believe that she actually met him until after she was well along in her own photography career. Her mother grew up in St. Louis and Chicago, and although she moved to Colorado to be with her husband she longed for the more cultured surroundings of 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.
Laura Gilpin was an American photographer known for her photographs of Native Americans, particularly the Navajo and Pueblo. In 1918 her mother hired a nurse, Elizabeth (Betsy) Forster, to care for her, ill from influenza, and Gilpin and Forster became friends and, later, companions. She frequently photographed Forster during the more than 50 years they were together. They remained together, with occasional separations necessitated by available jobs, until Forster's death in 1972.
Betsy Forster & Laura Gilpin are both buried at the Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In 1903, for her twelfth birthday. Gilpin received a brownie camera from her parents, and she used it incessantly for several years. She believed the year 1904 was a critical point in her life. 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 said "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 New York to have her portrait taken by well-known photographer Gertrude Käsebier. Later when she decided to become a photographer, Gilpin asked Käsebier if she would be her mentor. Over the years they developed a lifelong friendship.
When family finances declined (and the hoped-for musical talent did not develop), Gilpin returned to Colorado. She soon became friends with an acquaintance of her family William Jackson Palmer, a railroad and military man who helped develop rail-related industries such as steel mills in Colorado. He instilled a love of nature in her by taking her horseback riding and educating her in the names of plants and animals.
Gilpin's long-term involvement with the Navajo began in 1930 when she ran out of gas on their reservation while on a camping trip with her companion Elizabeth Forster.
Deeply impressed by the Navajo people who came to their aid, Forster became a field nurse on the reservation. She lived in Red Rock, Arizona, for two years. Gilpin later became a frequent visitor to the reservation and, through the contacts made by her friend, began to photograph the Navajo people. Her pictures of families, trading posts, hogans, and ceremonies form a compassionate record of traditional Navajo life.
After Forster lost her job in 1933 financial difficulties and a number of photographic projects kept Gilpin away from the reservation for 16 years. In 1941 she published her first major book, The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle, based on a series of lantern slides she had made of archaeological sites.
She lived for a while in Wichita, Kansas, working for the Boeing Company as a photographer of their airplanes. She left there in 1944, shortly after her father's death, and returned to her beloved Colorado. She continued working and photography throughout the Southwest until her death.
Gilpin said she made her earliest dated autochome in 1908 when she was 17 years old. Since this process had only become widely available the year, she showed remarkable interest in photography 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 moved there from 1916–1918 and 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 of that style. She found her true vision in the peoples and landscapes of the American Southwest, and she published several books on the region. Like her mentor Käsebier she made her living 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 went to become one of the great masters of the art of platinum printing, and many of her platinum prints are now in museums around the world. She said "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."
Over a thirty-year period from 1945-1975 her work was seen in more than one hundred one-person and group exhibits.
In 1974 the governor of New Mexico awarded her one of the first Annual Awards for Excellence in the Arts. She continued to be very active as a photographer and as a participant in the Santa Fe arts scene until her death in 1979.
Gilpin's photographic and literary archives are now housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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