” 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 one who studies it with sufficient care ”
Gilpin began taking photographs as a child in Colorado In 1903 when she received a Kodak Brownie Camera (and later received a developing tank for Christmas). She used this camera incessantly for several years. She considered the year 1904 to be a very important point in her life. During this year, Gilpin’s mother sent her to visit her closest friend and Gilpin’s namesake, Laura Perry, in St. Louis. Gilpin was there during the great Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Perry was blind, and it was Gilpin’s task to describe every exhibit to her in detail. They visited the fair every other day for a month, and she later said the experience taught her the kind of observation she would have never learned otherwise.
She formally studied photography in New York from 1916 to 1917 before returning to her home in Colorado to begin her career as a professional photographer.
In 1916, Gilpin moved to Manhattan to study photography. She lived with Brenda Putnam, a sculptor who was living, sculpting, and teaching in New York City at the time. They were briefly lovers, but it was the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship for Gilpin and Putnam, who supported each other’s work and discussed art together. Gilpin studied sculpture with Putnam and would often photograph her works. The two artists stayed in close contact even after Gilpin left NYC for the Southwest.
She returned to Colorado Springs in 1918 after becoming seriously ill from the influenza epidemic. Her mother hired Forster as a nurse to care for her. They remained together, with occasional separations for available jobs, until Forster’s death in 1972. After Gilpin recovered, she opened her own commercial photography studio in Colorado Springs.
Gilpin made her earliest dated autochrome in 1908 when she was 17-years-old. Since this process had only become widely available that year, she showed remarkable talent as a photographer for a teenage girl at that time. When she decided she wanted to seriously study photography, Käsebier advised her to go to the Clarence White School in New York City.
She learned the techniques and craft of her trade. She deeply admired Clarence White, whom she later called: “one of the greatest teachers I have ever known in any field”. Her early work was in the Pictorialist style, but by the 1930s she had moved away from the soft-focus look and found her true vision in the peoples and landscapes of the American Southwest, and she published several books on the region.
Like Käsebier, she made her money taking portraits, but in the mid-1930s she began to receive critical acclaim for her photographs of the Navajo and Pueblo peoples and for her landscapes. By the end of that decade she was exhibiting photos in shows throughout the United States and in Europe.
She became one of the great masters of the art of platinum printing, and many of her platinum prints can now be seen in museums around the world.
Between 1945-1975 her work was seen in more than one hundred one-person and group exhibits.
During World War II, Gilpin was publicity director for Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, where she artistically represented commercial subjects and discovered aerial photography.
Gilpin moved to Santa Fe in 1946. She published several books, most notably The Enduring Navaho, which was released in 1968. She was praised for her record of an adapting culture that others said was dying. Gilpin applied compassion to the relationship between the landscape and the native people, a trait that distinguished her from most male landscape photographers of the West. Gilpin was one of the first women to capture the landscape of the West on film and to comment on the interconnectedness between the environment and human activity. Hefting heavy camera equipment, she trekked great distances by foot, jeep, or plane to reach remote locations in pursuit of views, often flying dangerously low in aeroplanes to achieve her aerial shots. Unbounded by physical risks and societal restrictions, Gilpin worked well into her 80s.
Her career spanned more than six decades. Gilpin deftly used her chosen medium, black-and-white photography, to accentuate both the grand expanses of the Western landscape as well as the individual faces of the Native people who lived there. Through her elegant photographs, she emerged as a celebrated chronicler of the cultural geography of the American Southwest.
In 1974 the governor of New Mexico awarded her the first Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts. Gilpin continued to be very active as a photographer and as a participant in the Santa Fe arts scene until her death in 1979. In 2012, she was named to the Colorado Hall of Fame.
Gilpin’s archives are housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.