Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) was born on the family ranch above Colorado Springs in April, 1891. Her mother encouraged her at a young age to be independent and sent her to a boarding school in the east to accomplish at least part of that goal. At the age of 12 Laura received a Brownie camera for Christmas, an event that changed her life. Although schooled in secretarial duties, she went to Cooper Union in NYC to learn the method of photography, including platinum printing. After finishing her studies she went to Europe on her own, beginning her life-long career photographing great architecture and the people of France and England. She returned to the U.S., began working as a commercial photographer while producing several classic books, including The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle, Rio Grande, River of Destiny, Temples in Yucatan and her final and best known book, The Enduring Navaho. Gilpin supported herself doing commercial photography her entire life, based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico beginning the in the late 1940s. In the early 1970s she enjoyed her one and only major retrospective at the Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe, resulting in sales of her work from all periods, sales and orders that continued until she died at the age of 88 in Santa Fe. At the time of her death she was considered the best platinum printer in the country. To follow are insights provided by Sina Brush who worked with Miss Gilpin during the last years of her life.
Storm Over La Bajada Hill, August 4th, 1946
August 4th is the date of the Corn Dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo. Miss Gilpin was well-known by Native people at the pueblos, as well-known as she was within the Navajo reservation and made many portraits of Pueblo people including numerous images of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo, one of which was used by Richard Spivey for his book, Maria.
August 4th, 1946, Laura Gilpin went to Santo Domingo to photograph the Corn Dance at the pueblo, notably famous for its ability to bring rain by the end of the day. On this particular date, rain clouds began forming in late afternoon as they tend to do, Gilpin saw them moving north. She realized if she packed her box camera immediately and headed for a particular location at La Bajada overlooking Santo Domingo the clouds would ‘be exactly where she wanted them’ by the time she got to that point. She moved quickly, drove to the spot, got out her camera, made two negatives, and went home satisfied she accomplished what she wanted. This print is on a paper dating from the sixties that Gilpin had boxes of stored in her freezer. She ran out of that paper, using the last sheet for this photograph; although the print was damaged, she kept it because the image was especially well printed, reflections on lower side of cloud very hard to print, and particularly well-shown on this paper. She sold the print to a woman who wanted it, damaged or not, in approximately 1976.
This photograph is a rare example of Laura Gilpin’s method at work, a silver print study for her classic book, The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle. Although this particular image was not used, the back cover of the book, same picture inside, page 124, shows the exact location at the pueblo. Shadows of vigas are seen from a different angle, indicating different time of day, a different woman stands on the same buttress. This photograph is done on gelatin silver print photographic paper, dating 1939.
Provenance: Loraine Cleaveland Lavender first owned the print, there is no way to determine if she bought it or Miss Gilpin gave it to her, likely in the 1940s after Laura Gilpin moved to Santa Fe, as she liked to recount, “on VJ Day”. At some point, Mrs. Lavender either sold or gave the print to Bertha Dutton. There is a handwritten note from an old dust cover indicating it was Mrs. Lavender’s print, likely in the hand of Bertha Dutton, who acknowledged their friendship in her (Dutton) book.
Last, but not least, Laura Gilpin did not sign on her photographs, only on mats, until the last three or four years of her life, when gallery owner and her only representative ever, Lee Witkin of New York City, asked her to do so, after which she did sign on the print, bottom right, with great reluctance. This near sepia tone unsigned print was originally, undoubtedly in a non-archival hand-cut by Gilpin, yellow vellum ‘mat’. At an undetermined point that was disposed of, replaced with some sort of matting material, now replaced with archival acid-free matting, vintage label retained showing vestiges of the material I recall on many of her prints. The title “Acoma” is overwritten in pen and ink by unknown persons, probably due to fading of original writing. The gelatin silver print measures 12” x 10”, with an inch-long hair-line wrinkle, to the right of the electrical pole in the sky, virtually indiscernible, it certainly occurred during printing the negative. I would not consider it a flaw in any sense of the word. I had it spotted by the woman who did that very work for Laura Gilpin in the 1970s, Susan Steffy, wonderful photographer in her own right did an immaculate job. The print, as you can see, is in its original non-flattened condition (ripples at top edge), as it came out from drying after printing. I am sure Laura Gilpin did not have a dry-mount press, and in fact, they may not have existed then (1939).
A vintage print on early commercial platinum paper, archivally matted, labeled and signed, although signature is shaky, Miss Gilpin was doing very poorly by then and died two months after selling this print, signed on the back, not typical, at the request of present owner, Lee Witkin, Laura Gilpin’s one and only representative, finally got her to sign on prints themselves instead of mats, just a few years before she died. Print is in perfect condition, tonality illustrates her ability to control tone by temperature of developer, particularly good for this image. Miss Gilpin set up a hose one late winter afternoon to spray the tree, this was what she got next morning, a problem to see how well she could photograph and print it, especially of interest was adjusting the tone, done in Colorado Springs, 1924. Accession # P1979-123-61 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
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