fig. 1: The Prairie, by Laura Gilpin, platinum print, 1917
© 1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Bequest of Laura Gilpin


If Gilpin's upbringing connected her to the explorer-photographer tradition, her formal training linked her to a different school of landscape photography. In 1916, after experimenting with photography for more than a decade, Gilpin moved to New York to study at the Clarence H. White School, a bastion of photographic pictorialism. Pictorialism, a style popular in America around the turn of the century, emphasized mood at the expense of description. Eager to prove that their images were more than mere mechanical reproductions, pictorial photographers favored soft-focus lenses that rendered a hazy view of the world, and they often manipulated their negatives and prints to assert artistic control. Pictorial landscapes, as made by White and others, frequently became metaphorical images, revealing more about the photographer's feelings toward the land than about the land itself. They were very different from the straightforward, meticulously detailed pictures made by the earlier survey photographers.

Gilpin was deeply influenced by White's pictorial style: his preference for soft focus lenses, his interest in design and the flat, decorative forms of Japanese prints, and his taste for platinum printing papers that yielded a broad tonal scale of grays. Most important, she embraced his idea of photography as a personally expressive art. Years after she left New York and abandoned the soft-focus style, Gilpin wrote, "Many enter the field of photography with the impulse to record a scene. They often fail to realize that what they wish to do is to record the emotion felt upon viewing that scene. . . a mere record photograph in no way reflects that emotion." (9) For this reason, Gilpin preferred black and white: color seemed too literal a rendering of the scene she observed.

After returning to Colorado Springs in 1917, Gilpin opened a commercial studio specializing in portraiture and architectural work and began making expressive pictures of the nearby mountains and prairies of eastern Colorado. Her 8 x 10 inch platinum prints have a personal, intimate quality that suggests Gilpin's romantic fascination with the terrain. In The Prairie (1917), a tiny windswept figure stands at the left of a broad, featureless plain, her arms outstretched as if beckoning the light and wind, perhaps a suggestion of Gilpin's own unquestioning embrace of the landscape (fig. 1). Despite its intimacy and small size, this picture still conveys the enormous scale of the prairie. The Spirit of the Prairie (1921), a similar image also made in eastern Colorado, won great praise from the New York critics who reviewed Gilpin's one-person show in 1924, precisely because it gave "most successfully the sense of the vastness of the plains." (10)

Gilpin's intuitive affection for the southwestern landscape matured during the 1920s as she became increasingly interested in the region's history. Ironically, her interest had been piqued on a trip to Europe in 1922 when she studied French and English culture through art and architecture. "The romance of the old West vanished so fast and so few ever did anything with it," she wrote in her journal. "Does it make you realize the importance of Art and how the main knowledge of history is through Art alone." (11) On an old globe in the Bodleian Library she noted that Santa Fe was the only spot marked in the terra incognita of the American West: it suggested that her area of the country had an important history of its own to be documented.

fig. 2: Round Tower, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado
by Laura Gilpin, hand-coated platinum print, Sept. 1925
© 1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Bequest of Laura Gilpin

Thus Gilpin was prepared to be impressed by an aura of history when she made her first trip to Mesa Verde in 1924. She framed and composed her photographs to suggest the precarious nature of the cliff-dwellers' lives and the bare-boned simplicity of their culture, and she made atmospheric, soft-focus prints to evoke the seeming romance of the ruins (fig. 2). She strove to capture a spirit of place. The photographer Paul Strand, whom she admired, worked at Mesa Verde in 1926, but his pictures were formally composed close-ups of rocks and tree stumps that revealed nothing about the site's special history.

Gilpin's broad, emotional response to Mesa Verde (she returned in 1925) was much like that of Willa Cather, whose story about the discovery of the ruins, The Professor's House, came out in 1925. Cather's hero, Tom Outland, lamented the fact that "we had only a small Kodak, and these pictures didn't make much show, - looked, indeed, like scrubby little 'dobe ruins such as one can find almost anywhere. They gave no idea of the beauty and vastness of the setting." Gilpin thought her pictures of the majestic, sculptural ruins compensated for Outland's shortcomings. Some of Cather's writings even seemed to describe her own photographs. "Far above me," Cather had written, "a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was still as sculpture - and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition." Gilpin hoped to interest Cather in collaborating on an illustrated edition of The Professor's House; unfortunately, her efforts to contact the author failed. (12)

Gilpin eventually used her Mesa Verde photographs in her own book, The Mesa Verde National Park: Reproductions from a Series of Photographs by Laura Gilpin, which she published herself in 1927. This small photographic booklet and its companion, The Pikes Peak Region: Reproductions from a Series of Photographs by Laura Gilpin (1926), introduced the theme that would recur throughout her subsequent books: the Southwest has a particular history, physical geography, and almost inexplicable spirit of place that has profoundly influenced the course of cultural development. (13) Any careful observer could sense this. At Mesa Verde, for example, "the atmosphere which emanates from these age-old ruins takes possession of all who behold them."(14)

The two publications established Gilpin's interest in using her pictures for purposes that were at once remunerative and instructive. In 1930, after attending a poorly illustrated lecture on Mexican archaeological sites, Gilpin resolved to produce a superior set of lantern slides illustrating the archaeological sites of the American Southwest. She planned three sorts of pictures: sweeping landscapes to show the settings of the sites, images of the sites themselves, and pictures of contemporary Indian life that would suggest the connections between America's past and present. Her landscape views were quite different from those being made around the same time by the photographer Edward Weston and others in the influential California-based Group f/64. Weston and his colleagues favored revealing, sharply focused close-ups. A single pebble might represent an entire rocky coastline. Gilpin preferred wide, all-encompassing vistas that better suggested the sweep of human history and the impact of the environment on patterns of human settlement. She had a keen sense of design and composition, but her interest in the cultural significance of the landscape was always as strong as her formal concerns.

Gilpin's slide sets were critically praised (although they were a financial failure) and the images from the sets were eventually incorporated into her first major book, The Pueblos: A Camera Chronicle (1941). The pictures in the book moved from images of prehistoric sites through photographs of the contemporary Rio Grande pueblos, emphasizing the links between past and present. In her text Gilpin, like so many other writers and artists of the period, made it clear that the ancient history of the Southwest, a history "old as Egypt," was what gave the region its particular allure. Though the Gilpins were relative newcomers to the Southwest, Laura claimed the legacy of the ancient Pueblo people as her own. "There is something infinitely appealing in this land which contains our oldest history," she wrote, "something which once known will linger in one's memory with a haunting tenacity." (15) With her deep sense of herself as a rightful inheritor of a rich Indian tradition, Gilpin echoed the words of Cather's hero Tom Outland, who remarked that the relics of Mesa Verde "belonged to all the people. They belonged to boys like you and me that have no other ancestors to inherit from." (16)

The alluring legacy of the Pueblos was for Gilpin (as for many other writers working between the wars) a legacy of peace. Willa Cather wrote in 1925 that the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde "developed considerably the arts of peace." Likewise, Gilpin found at Mesa Verde an enduring and "lasting sense of peace." At Taos, where Mary Austin sensed a deep "peace and stability," Gilpin too felt "the peace which seems so instilled in the atmosphere." (17)

Considering it impossible to depict the Pueblo people without their land, Gilpin stressed the intimate connections between the people and their environment with photographs of cliff-dwellings sheltered by natural rock outcroppings, deeply slashed canyons that afforded protection, unusual stone structures built to protect scarce water sources. In the text accompanying her landscapes she speculates about the ancient people who lived there and describes the role of particular geologic features in Pueblo mythology. "In this great southwest," she concludes, "the vast landscape plays an all-important part in the lives of its people. Their architecture resembles the giant erosions of nature's carving. It is a land of contrasts, of gentleness and warmth, and fierce and raging storms; of timbered mountains and verdant valleys, and wide, arid desert; of gayety and song, and cruel strife." (18)


All text © Martha A. Sandweiss.
All photographs © Amon Carter Museum.