Photographer Laura Gilpin. A `highly individualistic eye'

Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace, by Martha Sandweiss. University of Texas Press, 1986. 126 plates. $75. UNLIKE other artists and photographers visiting Paris in the 1920s, Laura Gilpin was not swept up in the exhilaration of the avant-garde. Her journal proclaimed that ``the best work of the present time is in America ... and I hope we are just entering on a new Golden Age.'' She later told author Martha Sandweiss: ``I studied in New York and did quite a bit of work there, but I'm a westerner, and I didn't want to run that rat race to earn money.'' The Golden Age eluded Gilpin. Her photographic practice was situated in an uncharted middle ground: marginal to the fashions of East Coast galleries, yet not fully resonant with the regional art of the American West.

Until the boom in photographic studies in the 1970s, Gilpin's financial condition was often precarious. She sought portrait and commercial work without resentment. At the same time, she spent nearly 50 years independently photographing the landscape of the American Southwest and the Navahos who lived there. The disparities of her life can be glimpsed in a notice from the Albuquerque Tribune in 1936: ``Miss Gilpin, in addition to taking beautiful artistic photographs ... is at present engaged in raising 3,000 turkeys for the market.''

Having learned her skill in 1916-17 from Clarence White, the legendary teacher of photographers as diverse as Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ralph Steiner, Gilpin thought in terms of good design and bore none of the aversion to commercial work affected by the followers of Alfred Stieglitz. Her earliest views betray the gauzy influence of pictorial photography, but in the Southwest she evolved her own documentary style - one with sentiment, but not sentimentality.

The Gilpin Publishing Company, founded in 1925, produced two descriptive booklets, on Pikes Peak and Mesa Verde. These couplings of image and text combined Gilpin's interest in history, anthropology, and archaeology, but they were, as Sandweiss admits, drenched in the romance of the old West.

Sandweiss detects a ``naive and unconsciously condescending'' attitude in the early work. Indeed, Gilpin often costumed her sitters and staged her views of the Pueblo people, presenting figures as symbols of impenetrable spirituality. As her contact with the Southwestern landscape deepened - she slept under the stars, even at the age of 80 - and as she came to form friendships with the Navahos, the soft-focus views and the gushy writing gave way to a keener understanding. In her later photographs, Gilpin made images of individuals, not types, and she realized the unalloyed grandeur of the desert.

``The Enduring Navaho,'' conceived as a one- or two-year photo-text project, appeared in 1968, almost 20 years after its inception. Gilpin designed it to be ``a unity of picture and word (always the picture first) which would flow easily.'' The pictures yield a view of the persistence and adaptation of a traditional culture under modern stress. The text alternates between personal observation and lean historical narration.

Ansel Adams noted that Gilpin had ``a highly individualistic eye.'' ``I don't have any sense that she was influenced except by the land itself,'' he observed. Her work had its own dynamics, which quickened without the assistance of any theory, school, or movement. Gilpin once wrote: ``I live a lonely photographic life here in Santa Fe. I do see Eliot Porter occasionally, and Ansel storms through every so often, otherwise I plug along in my old fashioned way.''

Admirably, Martha Sandweiss is confident enough of Gilpin's importance that she does not heroize her life. The book underscores the extent to which regional photography is expanding the study of photohistory, too long wedded to a single focus on the art world.

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