Documenting Native Life in the 20th Century

Laura Gilpin was born in 1891 in Colorado Springs. On her 12th birthday her parents gave her a Brownie camera. From that moment on, she and her camera were inseparable. Her career spanned 60 years. Gilpin became known for her documentation of Navajo people and of Southwestern landscapes. No other female photographer in the American Southwest did as much during the 20th century.

Introduction to New Mexico

Elizabeth Forster drove her friend, Brenda Putnam, on a camping trip in the Southwest in 1924. Forster was the nurse who cared for photographer Laura Gilpin during the 1918 flu epidemic.  As a visiting nurse for the New Mexico Association for Indian Affairs, Forster had befriended many native people. These friendships allowed Gilpin to photograph ceremonial rituals and other aspects of Native American life.

San Diego 1915

In 1915 she traveled to the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, followed by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. These two events awakened her interest in the landscape and cultures of indigenous people. By the 1930s she was concentrating on photographs of the Navajo and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, to critical acclaim.

Platinum Print Photographs

Early on, Gilpin became quite adept at the process of developing platinum prints, which provided a broad tone of scale for her black-and-white photos. She is considered one of the great photographers of this medium. From 1945 to 1975 her work was exhibited in more than a hundred shows in galleries and museums throughout the world. She moved to Santa Fe at the end of WWII, where she died in 1979 at the age of 88.

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