Laura Gilpin was born on the north side of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1891. At an early age, she was drawn to photography. Her father, perhaps glimpsing the talent she’d eventually share with the world, bought his daughter a camera for her 12th birthday — it was a Brownie, the Eastman Kodak box camera that launched so many illustrious careers.

A year later, she made her first photographs while attending the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1908, at age 17, she graduated to Autochrome prints, an early color process. Then, in 1917, she moved to New York to study at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, which the acclaimed Mr. White opened in 1914 in a brownstone church on the east side of Greenwich Village. 

She didn’t stay long, though. In 1918, Ms. Gilpin was downed by influenza. Her nurse, Betsy Forster, became her constant companion, and together they traveled west, landing first in Colorado Springs. According to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, she returned home to establish “a publishing company and her own studio for portraiture and architectural work, but left to work for the Boeing Aircraft Corporation during World War II. After the war she settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she supported herself with commercial assignments while working on her personal projects.”

Among them were several books, including Temples in Yucatan (1948) and The Rio Grande (1949), both of which she wrote and photographed. Twenty years later, in 1968, she would publish what is arguably her most important book, The Enduring Navaho.

“Within the boundaries of their 25,000-square-mile reservation,” she writes in the book’s preface, “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.” 

Thus the word “enduring” in her title.

“Gilpin found no evidence that the tribe Edward Curtis once referred to as ‘the vanishing race’ would soon disappear,” Martha Sandweiss writes in her analysis of the book. “The Navajo she depicted could accommodate to change as easily as they could adapt to their desert environment. Most important, they could do so without losing the essential values of their culture.”

Toward the end of the book, Ms. Gilpin offers a note of hope, one that’s echoed today — more than 50 years later. “Many who know the Navaho will think that the great days of ceremonialism are lost,” she wrote. “Possibly this is true, but I cannot believe the old ways will really be lost. ... We can but hope that those essential qualities of the Dinéh will never be lost. Song and singing are the very essence of Navaho being, and as long as the Navaho keep singing, their tradition will endure.”

In 1972, at the age of 81, Ms. Gilpin made one final visit to the Navajo Nation — to create a book of images from Canyon de Chelly. While working on the project, Sandweiss writes, one of the Navajo families she photographed put on a picnic in her honor. It was a show of appreciation for the gift of a photograph she’d made of a deceased family member. 

“It was a Navajo gift,” Ms. Gilpin said. “That was a day I’ll never forget, because it just summed it all up. ... It was just that I was accepted by them, I think, as much as anything else — as somebody that understood them.”

Sadly, the Canyon de Chelly project was never completed. Ms. Gilpin died in 1979. Upon her death, she left her photographic estate of 27,000 negatives and more than 20,000 prints to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

— Robert Stieve

Photographs: Amon Carter Museum of American Art
The elderly Navajo woman in this photo from the early 1950s is also pictured with her sister on page 28. “Many of the Navaho People who come closest in contact with us, and who now speak English fluently, are wearing clothes like ours,” Gilpin wrote. “However, velveteen blouses are still widely worn, with a great variety of bright colors, still decorated with silver buttons and with belts of silver [medallions] strung on leather. For a long time dimes and quarters to which silver loops had been soldered were also used as buttons, but these are fast disappearing.”


Photographs: Amon Carter Museum of American Art
This photo of a young Navajo mother and a child was made around 1953. “There are many thousands of young Navaho,” Gilpin wrote, “who are pushing aside the traditional ways taught by their parents, wanting to partake fully of non-Indian culture. But there are also many, both young and old, who are concerned about this rejection of the past and who are trying to preserve the ways of their people.”


Photographs: Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Luke Yazzie is photographed in profile at Pine Springs, a small community southwest of the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, in 1952. “Good manners and simple courtesy are very much a part of Navaho life,” Gilpin wrote, “and there is always a right way and a wrong way to do everything. This is why Navaho People deliberate before every act, before every spoken word.”


Photographs: Amon Carter Museum of American Art
This photo, titled Mrs. Hardbelly and Her Sister, was dated 1955 in The Enduring Navaho, but the Amon Carter Museum of American Art says the correct date is 1953. In the book, Gilpin recounted a visit to Mrs. Hardbelly’s hogan while her husband, Hardbelly, was suffering from a heart condition. “As we entered the hogan we found Hardbelly lying on his pallet, his wife and family sitting about him,” she wrote. “I wondered if I dared ask to make a picture. To my surprise they seemed pleased that I wanted to.”


Photographs: Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Gilpin photographed silversmith John Harrison near Red Rock, just south of the Four Corners area, in 1934. “In the winter Navaho men often wear headbands made of fur — there is no top,” she wrote. Of the process of silversmithing, she added, “The fine work of the early Navaho smiths was produced with the simplest of equipment, and though during the following decades new tools were added to the smith’s work bench, the technique is basically the same.”