Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: 'Laura Gilpin: The Enduring Photographer' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

21 June 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the thirty-eighth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Laura Gilpin: The Enduring Photographer.

This 25-minute production from New Mexico PBS looks back on the long life and luminous work of Laura Gilpin. Gilpin was a pioneer in more than one sense, living in the Southwest and working in photography from the beginning of the 20th century.

"I didn't know a darn thing about what I was doing," she confessed about her early work. "I just followed the directions."

For her twelfth birthday in 1904, her parents gave her a Kodak Brownie and she started photographing everything in sight. She loved capturing the world but the girl who was fascinated with automobile engines was also intrigued by the process. She made her first autochrome (shown in the film) in 1908 as a teen, when it was still an experimental color process.

She moved to New York in 1916 to study photography for two years. She subsequently opened a commercial photography studio in Colorado Springs where she made a living taking portraits.

During the Second World War she worked for Boeing photographing B-29 aircraft making no more than one negative for a shot to save film.

She loved flying. If she fell out of the plane, one pilot friend said, she'd take photographs all the way to the ground.

But her career was never very lucrative. For decades, she would manage on just a few hundred dollars a year.

But her interest in the art of photography matured as she did.

She became a master of the hand-coated platinum print, some of which are reproduced in the film. "I have always loved the platinum printing process," she said. "It's the most beautiful image one can get. It has the longest scale and one can get the greatest degree of contrast. It's not a difficult process. It just takes time."

Her photography is distinguished by its sense of design, which she claimed to have acquired by looking at the ground glass of an 8x10 view camera under a focusing cloth with nothing to see but what the lens had framed on the glass. Her images are meticulously composed, a pleasure to behold.

She practiced her art on the vast but intimate landscapes of the Southwest that she loved, on portraits of the Navajo people she admired and on the Rio Grande that she followed from its source to the sea to make its portrait.

She was not someone content to go only half way.

Those projects led to books:

Her work can be seen online at the Andrew Smith Gallery and Scheinbaum & Russek. Princeton historian Martha A. Sandweiss has written a biography of her, titled Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace.

She never cultivated fame and it did not chase her. But the woman who took her formal portrait as a child became her mentor and her nurse during a youthful bout with the flu became a lifelong companion and running out of gas at a Navajo reservation led to lasting friendships on the way to a 38-year project documenting the Navajo way of life.

She had a deep appreciation for the world around her and the people she lived among. But, as the film explains, Gloria Steinem puzzled her.

She was among the first photographers to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930 but she didn't get it. Only when she had turned 83 did she receive the Fellowship for her work with platinum prints. And fame came to her at last.

We celebrate her now for the perfection of her photography and the person she was, who, as Sandweiss put it, "could hire a plane or camp overnight to get the picture she wanted. For more than a half a century, she practiced her profession with consummate craftsmanship and a great love for the world around her."

A love that, finally, was not unrequited.

BackBack to Photo Corners