“The greatest tool at our command is the very thing that is photography. Light. Light is our paintbrush and it is a most willing tool in the hands of the one who studies it with a sufficient care.”
-- Laura Gilpin
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) was famous for her American landscapes and photographic studies of the Navajo. According to a story by Martha A. Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin was unusual in that “No other woman in the history of American photography so devoted herself to chronicling the landscape.” She offered this quote by Gilpin to illustrate this passion:
"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."
Even when photographing the Navajo, she sees the people as inseparable from their land. To borrow from another story by Sandweiss: “Gilpin's book, The Enduring Navaho (1968), opens with an explicit statement about the relationship between the Dinéh and their land: ‘Within the boundaries of their 25,000-square-mile reservation, more than 100,000 Navaho People, the largest tribe of Indians in North America, are striving for existence on a land not productive enough to sustain their increasing population.’…The sequencing of the pictures underscores her text. Aerial views of the Navajo's four sacred mountains, conveying a sense of the larger physical world in which the people live, precede any portraits of the people themselves.”
What I admire about Laura Gilpin was her passion. It seems to be the common denominator in all really great photographers. What else could drive someone to work that tirelessly, doggedly, patiently returning again and again until you get it just right?
There is one other quality I admire in Gilpin.
During her later years until her death she lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my mother, photographer Nancy Warren, met her. Laura Gilpin had attended my mother’s first show at a Santa Fe gallery. It was a collection of documentary photographs of Spanish Villages in New Mexico, mostly of the people that lived in the villages. Laura sent Nancy a note congratulating her on the show and suggesting that they meet sometime. They did and Laura was very encouraging to a younger photographer who greatly admired her. They attended another photo show together where Laura introduced Nancy to the photographer. This photographer, unlike Laura, was barely polite and couldn’t spare the time to talk to my mother. Laura whispered to Nancy “I like your people pictures better than his.”
The photographer was Ansel Adams.