Thundercloud Near Thoreau, New Mexico
by Laura Gilpin, nitrate negative, Jun. 18, 1933
© 1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Bequest of Laura Gilpin

Laura Gilpin and the Tradition of
American Landscape Photography

by Martha A. Sandweiss
Originally published in Vera Norwood and Janice Monk (eds.),
The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art,
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987/Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

"What I consider really fine landscapes are very few and far between," Laura Gilpin wrote to a friend in 1956. "I consider this field one of the greatest challenges and it is the principal reason I live in the west. I . . . am willing to drive many miles, expose a lot of film, wait untold hours, camp out to be somewhere at sunrise, make many return trips to get what I am after." (1)

Gilpin spoke with authority about the challenge of landscape photography. Her first published picture, a view of the Grand Canyon, appeared in a photography magazine in 1916, and since then she had hiked, driven, and flown tens of thousands of miles across the Southwest. Just weeks before her death in 1979 at the age of 88, she leaned out the window of a small plane flying low over the Rio Grande valley to make her last photographs. (2)

No other woman in the history of American photography so devoted herself to chronicling the landscape. Others photographed the land, but none can be regarded as a landscape photographer with a sustained body of work documenting the physical terrain. Anne Brigman (1869-1950) often photographed in the woodlands and along the coast near her California home, but the land was generally a setting for her artfully placed nudes, and her pictures were less landscapes than elaborately staged allegories. Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), along with Gilpin the only woman included in a recent Museum of Modern Art survey of American landscape photography, photographed west Texas and California for her project "Dorothea Lange Looks at the American Country Woman" (1967). (3) But her landscapes were always conceived of as counterparts to her portraits of rural women. Other women in the West and Southwest photographed landscapes even more incidentally. When the eastern pictorial photographers Louise Deshong Woodbridge (1848-1925) and Clara Sipprell (1880-1975) passed through the Southwest on vacation trips early in this century, they made skillful views. But these pictures were not part of a sustained commitment to landscape work. Barbara Morgan (b. 1900) began to photograph the southwestern landscape on a trip through Arizona and New Mexico around 1930, but shortly thereafter her sons were born and she abandoned landscape photography for work that would allow her to stay closer to home. (4) Only in the last decade or two have younger women in the region begun to pursue landscape photography seriously.

Gilpin thus claims her own niche in the photographic world. For even as her interest in landscape work distinguishes her from other women photographers, her approach to landscape photography sets her apart from the men who documented the same subject. Gilpin was interested in the land as an environment that shaped human activity, an approach that distinguished her from such nineteenth-century photographer-explorers as William Henry Jackson or Timothy O'Sullivan, and from her contemporary, Ansel Adams, who photographed the West as a place of inviolate, pristine beauty. For Gilpin the southwestern landscape was neither an empty vista awaiting human settlement nor a jewel-like scene resisting human intrusion. It was a peopled landscape with a rich history and tradition of its own, an environment that shaped and molded the lives of its inhabitants. Gilpin developed her point of view on her own. As Ansel Adams said after her death, she had "a highly individualistic eye. I don't have the sense that she was influenced except by the land itself." (5)

It is difficult to draw conclusions about a "feminine" way of seeing from the work of one woman who persevered in a field traditionally dominated by men. But Gilpin's approach to landscape photography has analogies in the work of women writers who, far more than their male counterparts, have traditionally described the southwestern landscape in terms of its potential to sustain domestic life. Her pictures also suggest new ways to look at the limited body of landscape work done by contemporary women photographers.

Western American landscape photography grew out of a male tradition, pioneered by the photographers attached to the government survey teams that went west in the 1860s and 1870s. It was intensely physical work - photographers had to haul hundreds of pounds of equipment, chemicals, fresh water, and fragile glass plates up steep mountains and across dry deserts. It was also lonely work that required them to spend long periods of time away from their families. A veteran of two decades of exploration photography, Carleton Watkins complained to his wife in 1882, "I have never had the time seem so long to me on any trip I ever made from home, and I am not half done with my work.... It drags along awful slow, between the smoke and the rain and the wind, and as if the elements were not enough to worry me, a spark from an engine set fire to my [dark]tent last week and burned it half up." (6)

Survey photographers like Jackson or Watkins photographed the West that their government employers wanted to see: an exotic and majestic land shaped by awesome natural forces, unpopulated and ready for American settlement. Photographers employed by the railroad companies who went west after the Civil War also brought back views of an empty landscape ripe for commercial exploitation. These photographers made pictures of great beauty incidentally; their chief purpose was to document the land in the interests of science and commerce.

Gilpin had strong connections to this heroic strain of explorer-photographers. Born in 1891 just outside of Colorado Springs, she was distantly related to both William Gilpin, the visionary expansionist and explorer who became Colorado's first territorial governor, and to the photographer William Henry Jackson. As a girl, she knew Dr. William A. Bell, who had photographed along the thirty second parallel for the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1867, and she was a friend of General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of the town and of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. The elderly general took her horseback-riding and "as we rode," she recalled, "he would point to plants, trees and wild life, citing their names. He taught me to know the outdoors, and especially to love it." To General Palmer she attributed her life-long fascination with physical geography. (7)

Laura Gilpin's father, Frank, was also a western adventurer. A would-be cowboy from a proper Baltimore family, he moved to Colorado to seek his fortune in 1880. The West seemed full of possibilities that eluded him. He tried his hand at ranching, mining, and investing before settling down to a career as a craftsman of fine furniture in the late 1920s. Laura's mother, Emma Miller Gilpin, did not share her husband's enthusiasm about the possibilities of western life. Raised in a refined St. Louis family, she attempted to bring culture into the family's rustic homes. She encouraged Laura's musical studies and saw to it that she was educated at eastern boarding schools. But Laura felt out of place at the eastern schools she attended from 1905 until 1909; at parties she asserted her identity by wearing a cowboy outfit.

Unlike her mother, Gilpin felt at home in the great outdoor spaces of the West from childhood. This is a key to her interest in and success at landscape photography. William Henry Jackson and his eastern-born colleagues had photographed the West as an alien land where great mountains and featureless deserts dwarfed humans to insignificance. But for Laura Gilpin the Southwest - particularly the areas around northern New Mexico and southern Colorado where she grew up - was home. Her pictures of the region suggest a kind of quiet intimacy, an easy familiarity that only a native daughter could have. Gilpin's mentor, Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), a native Coloradan who by the 1910s had established herself in New York as the country's leading woman photographer, recognized this intimate quality in Gilpin's work and wrote to her in 1924 that her landscapes were "doubly precious to me because of the years of my childhood which were spent amidst such surroundings." (8)







All text © Martha A. Sandweiss.
All photographs © Amon Carter Museum.
For additional information and a gallery of Laura Gilpin photographs, please see
Laura Gilpin in the WIP Archive, Women Artists of the American West.

Watermark VW2D Technology © Purdue University.