Written by: Cindy Gaillard
Date: July 21, 2015
At the age of 80, landscape photographer Laura Gilpin suddenly became famous.
Gilpin worked and lived the majority of her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a girl she met and was encouraged by William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) who photographed the west as the railroad expanded, bringing images of untouched, magnificant landscapes to the folks back east. Jackson’s photographs are heralded as the most important ever made and helped define what we know as the American West.
What strikes me about Laura Gilpin was the longevity of her career. She took photographs from 1903 (she was twelve) until her death in 1979. At 19, she saved enough money from managing her own turkey farm and purchased an autochrome kit from the Lumiere brothers in France and made one of the first color ‘selfies.’
As an older woman, Gilpin advised an up and coming photographer named Ansel Adams on the best spots to set up his camera. Legend has it that it was she who gave him a map to find the most picturesque aspen groves.
She had a portrait studio. She was an architectural photographer. During World War II she worked as a public relations photographer for Boeing Company in Kansas City, making photographs of airplanes and passenger jets.
When she was 58, she traversed the length of the Rio Grande by horseback (the mountainous head waters) and station-wagon (the Gulf of Mexico) to document the life of the west’s most notable river.
For most of her life Gilpin’s real love was landscape photography and all of her other endeavors financially supported her trips either up the Rocky Mountains or across the western United States. But no one bought her art. She showed a few times at the Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe, but for most of her life she worked in relative obscurity.
Then came her 80th birthday. The Guggenheim Foundation awarded her a fellowship. Magazines and publications wanted her photographs. She was asked to show at museums. Buyers flocked to acquire her vivid landscapes.
Suddenly, she was famous.
When an upstart reporter came to interview her Gilpin didn’t understand that her life and work might be an inspiration to other women. And she didn’t know the woman asking all those pesky questions – a young Gloria Steinem.
With the fellowship money she hired a small plane to take her over Canyon de Chelly so she could take more pictures. At 80, her hip bones were dust from years of carrying a large format camera on her shoulder, but in a plane, she was free to snap away.
I never met Laura, but I did meet and interview some of her closest friends. They remember her as a firecracker – quick to laugh and seize the moment. Her greatest regret was missing out on riding her favorite horse because her hips couldn’t take it. She worked hard. She worked all of her life. She loved holding a camera.
There are days at work when I feel my relevancy slipping away especially in the technology age. So many young faces at the table while the next major step in my career will be looking for a retirement job. “Will my voice ever be hear in all this noise?” I ask myself far too often. “Does my voice even matter?”
And then, I think of Laura Gilpin. I think of her life-long dedication to photography. I think of that woman driving down to where the Rio Grande River melts into the Gulf in a worn out station wagon with extra cans of gas because there were no filling stations back then conveniently located fifty miles apart. I think of her gliding in that airplane over Canyon de Chelly, shouting at the pilot to take her closer to the ground. I think of her hiking up another mountain, the weight of her large format camera digging into her shoulder, the landscape unfolding with every step.
She never needed to be famous.
And then I get back to work.
Cindy Gaillard produced a documentary on Laura Gilpin in 1999. You can watch it here.