Laura Gilpin at St. John’s

Laura Gilpin at a Santa Fe campus event, late 1960s or early 1970s

While the books at Meem Library will always and forever hold center stage at our college, the silent stories told by our library’s art works are always fascinating and complex in their own right. Among these is the tale told by the Laura Gilpin photographs hanging quietly on our library’s walls. 

Laura Gilpin’s name may no longer elicit wide recognition, but here in the Southwest her work still stands shoulder-to-shoulder with that of her more famous friends and contemporaries Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. As such, Gilpin’s is a story well worth revisiting, and particularly given her close ties with the Santa Fe campus in its first decade of existence. Laura Gilpin’s connection to our College is yet another example of the diverse base of financial, literary, and artistic patronage that infused a distinctive regional vitality into the Santa Fe campus and its library (even before there was a bona fide library) back in the fledgling years of the 1960s and 1970s. Meem Library is fortunate to be able to display no fewer than three of Gilpin’s photographs, and it behooves us to share a little of the history behind them, which has faded with the passing generations.

Laura Gilpin’s association with the College began in the very first years of the Santa Fe campus. In 1966 Ms. Gilpin, a neighbor to the campus on nearby Camino Del Monte Sol, made a book donation to the nascent campus library, then housed in what is now the campus Bookstore space in Peterson Student Center. An archival letter dated September 6, 1966, from St. John’s College President Richard Weigle to Laura Gilpin reads as follows:

My dear Laura,

Again I want to thank you most warmly for the gift of books which you made to St. John’s library. The sets of Ruskin and Victor Hugo are most welcome. They make a handsome addition to our collection.

I was delighted to share your good news about [your new] book. We will look forward to its publication, a year hence, with keen anticipation. Perhaps between now and then we can persuade you to put on a show of your photographs here in the Student Center.

With warm good wishes, I am, most sincerely,

Richard Weigle

Copy of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice donated by Laura Gilpin to the Santa Fe campus library in 1966
Original donor acknowledgement gift plate in the library’s copy of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice

While parts of the correspondence that follows are missing, it is clear that Ms. Gilpin, then 75 years old and just entering the decade that would mark the very height of her career and fame, wasted little time in taking President Weigle (whose greeting suggests the two by then already knew one another passably well) up on his offer of a gallery show. On Nov. 27, 1966, just two and a half months later, an article by John MacGregor, editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper’s weekly events calendar Pasatiempo, appeared in that paper with the following announcement:

Of all photographers of the Southwest, none has seen and pictured the region in its many moods for so long a time as has Laura Gilpin.

On the eve of her 50th year as a professional photographer, an exhibit sampling her work in the Southwest opens today in the balcony gallery above the main dining room of St. John’s College Student Center. It will continue through the end of 1966….

While the Pasatiempo indicates the gallery opening occurred on November 27, 1966, records also show a more formal “Punch Party and Reception” in Ms. Gilpin’s honor scheduled for December 18 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Student Center, with invitees including St. John’s faculty and staff, members of the SJC Santa Fe library committee, and members of the SJC Santa Fe Board of Associates, then chaired by New Mexico governor Jack Campbell.

On the appointed day of this in-house reception it was none other than John Meem–with his wife Faith the principal donor of the land on which our campus now sits and also with Faith a namesake of our own Meem Library–who stood to address the assembled. His handwritten notes, retained in the library Archives, read as follows:

The Faculty and Staff of St. John’s College, members of the Associates of St. John’s College, members of the Library Board of St. John’s College, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Our purpose in gathering here is to celebrate Laura Gilpin’s fiftieth anniversary as a great American photographer. In doing so it is appropriate that we should remind ourselves of the highlights in her distinguished career. Mr. Lewis Thompson, a member of the Associates of St. John’s College, kindly consented to prepare a brief biography, which it is now my pleasure to read to you:

“Today Miss Laura Gilpin looks back over a career of photographing everything and everyone in the Southwest from Lillian Gish at Central City to the lonely Navajo in the isolation of the reservation. Throughout her work the emphasis has been upon capturing the irretrievable transient moods of its people and landscapes.

The major part of her time during the past year or two has been devoted to compiling and finishing the book on the Navajo which began more than 15 years ago. Its final form has just been determined, and The Enduring Navajo will be published next fall by the University of Texas Press.

The book, which Miss Gilpin recognizes as her “magnum opus,” will contain some 65,000 words and nearly 200 photographs in black and white and color recording the history, mythology, religious observances and life on the New Mexico and Arizona reservation.

The publication will crown a career which began in 1917 upon her graduation from the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City.

Born and raised in Colorado, Miss Gilpin decided to return to the west after a couple of years of commercial work in New York. She decided she’d rather be poor out here than run the New York rat race.

A variety of commercial assignments and freelance work followed.

In the mid-1920s, a lecture at Colorado College awakened what was to become a lifetime interest in archeology. The lecture was on the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan in Mexico. The lecture was very exciting, but one aspect of it troubled Miss Gilpin: the pictures accompanying it were poor. She wondered why the ruins couldn’t be photographed in a way which would tell the story as well or better than with words. Miss Gilpin promptly embarked on a project which was to result in her first publication, a paperback pamphlet on the ruins at Mesa Verde.

In 1932, again pursuing the trail of the wandering archeologist, Miss Gilpin went with a school group to Yucatan to photograph Mayan ruins. A book on Chichen Itza followed.

The same year, when Lillian Gish starred in the opening production of “Camille,” Laura Gilpin was on hand with her camera, and she photographed all the Central City productions for the next five years.

In the prewar years, another enduring interest asserted itself: photographing Indians. A part of her collection of portraits and other shots in New Mexico appeared in 1941 in Pueblos – A Camera Chronicle, published by Hastings House.

World War II brought Miss Gilpin a different kind of assignment. In 1942, she joined the Boeing aircraft plant producing B-29 bombers in Wichita, Kan. The work was incredibly demanding, and it was there that she learned the indispensable technique of making one negative right the first time.

Miss Gilpin’s most famous picture of the war years was a night shot of the great bird rolling out of an assembly hangar, its gleaming form reflected in the wet surface of the landing apron. Years later, she walked into the new Time-Life Building in New York to confront a 100-foot long photomural which had been made from her negative.

On VJ day in 1945, Miss Gilpin was back in Colorado. When gasoline rationing was lifted the next day, she headed south with a contract to do a book on the Rio Grande and a treasured case of Isopan film.

Miss Gilpin established temporary residence in Santa Fe in 1945 while working on her photographic study of the Rio Grande. She elected to stay and has made Santa Fe her residence and working headquarters to this day. In 1946, while still working on the Rio Grande book. Miss Gilpin went south from Laredo to Mexico City and to Yucatan for the second time, returning primarily to photograph the ruins at Chichen Itza which had been under restoration at the time of her first trip. In 1948, Hastings House published her Temples in Yucatan with pictures taken on that and the earlier trip.

In 1960-61, she was again to return to Yucatan, this time with an expedition sent out by the Museum of International Folk Art. Museum officials would rather not discuss the results of the ill-fated collecting safari, but for Miss Gilpin, it was both rewarding and productive. Many of the negatives from that trip remain unprinted but three of the pictures have been included in the exhibit here at St. John’s.

In addition to the “bread and butter” assignments of portraiture, architectural photography and magazine illustrations, for the last fifteen years, Miss Gilpin has devoted much of her time and efforts to telling the story of the American Indian–primarily the Navajo. Her first close introduction to the Navajo Reservation had come in 1932 when a close friend, Miss Elizabeth Forster, was one of two pioneer nurses to demonstrate public health nursing near Shiprock under the sponsorship of the Southwest Association for Indian Affairs. The collection of photos of the Navajo has grown from year to year.

At first she had no idea of writing a book, but interest among members of the tribe itself spurred her on. Tribal Counsel Maurice McCabe encouraged her to put it together. Once begun, she admits, “the book itself opened many a door.”

Gilpin portraits of Navajos have appeared in American Heritage, and she did several of the illustrations for Oliver LaFarge’s The American Indian.

Miss Gilpin has appeared in more than a dozen national magazines and has exhibited in as many cities throughout the country. She was the first photographer to exhibit in the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. Her one [person] show has appeared in the Library of Congress. She has exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History.

But her synthesis of more than 30 years of association with the people of the Desert is embodied in her new book The Enduring Navajo. I’m sure it is anxiously awaited by all of us here.”

I might add that the collection of photographs now being shown on the second floor gallery of the dining hall in this building will give you an excellent preview of what the book will be like.

Unquestionably Laura Gilpin is one of the great photographers of America, especially of its Southwestern scene. But, to those of us who have gotten to know her well here in Santa Fe there is another quality that stands out eminently. And that is her steadfast loyalty and courage. Not only on behalf of her friends but also to causes needing her wisdom and support. To mention only one, the Indian Arts Fund, responsible for having assembled one of the greatest collections of post-Spanish Indian pottery, blankets and jewelry in the world, found itself in need of leadership in the last few years if it were to perform its potential educational function. Laura Gilpin, at great sacrifice of personal time and energy, stepped in and skillfully led it through a difficult period.

Laura Gilpin: St. John’s College feels itself honored to present you this token of its admiration for your magnificent records of fifty years of great photography.

John Meem describes this “token” in a personal note to Lewis Thompson as a “silver tray.” While no image of this tray exists, the College’s gesture of appreciation plainly cemented the relation between Ms. Gilpin and St. John’s, which was to continue until her death in 1979. On October 3, 1969, Laura Gilpin was one of several featured speakers at a Book and Author Luncheon at La Fonda, sponsored by the St. John’s College Friends of the Library Committee. This appearance occasioned a follow-up note from Richard Weigle:

October 9, 1969

My dear Laura,

Thank you so much for appearing on the platform at the Book and Author Luncheon last Friday. You were truly the star of the day, and all of us in Santa Fe are very proud to claim you…

Most sincerely, Dick

And, a few months later:

December 7, 1969

Dear Laura:

As 1969 draws to a close, my thoughts turn back to the unusually successful series of Book & Author Luncheons which our library committee sponsored. I welcome the opportunity to write and express once again the College’s deep appreciation for your participation in the October luncheon. You gave great pleasure to many people from the Santa Fe community and to many of us in the College. I hope that you will come to the College as often as you can, use our library and our bookstore, and attend lectures, concerts and Saturday night movies. You are always welcome here. I send best wishes to you for the Holiday Season.

Most sincerely,


The Enduring Navajo, published in 1968
Laura Gilpin’s signature in Meem Library’s copy

Two years later, in 1971, Laura had a second show on campus in the Peterson Art Gallery. It is in the archival photos from this show that the Meem Library’s feature Gilpin piece, a black and white print of Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs that hangs in our north staircase, is clearly identifiable. Exactly how this piece ultimately came into the College’s possession—whether by purchase or by donation from the artist herself—remains a mystery. What is clear is that Laura’s relationship with St. John’s continued through the eight years that remained until her death. In 1974 she donated the book Dwellers at the Source: Southwestern Indian Photographs of A. C. Vroman. In 1977 she was invited to serve on a committee of other friends of the College (among them Faith and John Meem and Alexander and Susan Girard) who were organizing a lecture to honor Santa Fe poet and translator Witter Bynner, another friend and benefactor of the Santa Fe campus during its infancy. And, on November 19, 1979, just 11 days before her death, Laura gave two additional prints to the College—one of a Navajo family and another of the actress Helen Freeman.

Renowned fellow photographer Barbara Morgan, Laura Gilpin, and Amanda Fowler (SF71) at Laura’s 1971 Peterson Student Center Gallery show
Visitors to the 1971 Laura Gilpin Peterson Gallery show
More Gilpin’s from the 1971 show
An image of petroglyphs on display at Gilpin’s 1971 Peterson Art Gallery show
The same Laura Gilpin petroglyph photograph as it appears in the Meem Library’s northeast staircase, where it has now hung for three decades

With her passing on November 30, 1979, the Southwest lost one of its finest photographic eyes and the College a staunch supporter, a neighbor, and a friend. And this might have been the end of the story, but for an additional apt, elegant, and at the time entirely unexpected postscript.

In July of 2000, the College and local Santa Fe communities joined together in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Faith and John Meem Library on our Santa Fe campus. Among the speakers that day were acting Santa Fe campus president James Carey, chair of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors Greg Curtis, Annapolis campus president Chris Nelson, Santa Fe Mayor Larry Delgado, and Tutor Janet Dougherty speaking on behalf of the Faculty. James Hedberg, Santa Fe class of 2000 and the recent recipient of the Walter S. Baird Prize for his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in E flat major, provided piano music. The praises of the Library were sung loudly and respect paid to the many donors who, a decade earlier, had worked together to turn an almost thirty-year vision for a dedicated campus library building into a reality.  

But it was the final speaker of the day whose generosity, in yet one more chapter in a long family tradition, brought Laura Gilpin around full circle at St. John’s. Thirty-four years before, John Meem had led a toast honoring Laura’s career on the occasion of her 50th anniversary show in the campus Art Gallery. Now, all these years later, Nancy Meem Wirth, the daughter of John and Faith Meem, presented to Meem Library portraits of each of her parents taken many years earlier by none other than Laura Gilpin herself. It is these same photos that for more than two decades now have hung in the library’s main reading space, keeping silent watch over an entire generation of campus readers.

Laura Gilpin photograph of John Meem, a donation to Meem Library from his daughter Nancy Meem Wirth
Laura Gilpin photograph of Faith Bemis Meem, a donation to Meem Library from her daughter Nancy Meem Wirth.

For those who would know like to learn more about Laura Gilpin’s life and legacy, we suggest the following short documentaries. The first was produced in 1986 by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which houses Gilpin’s photographic and literary archives. The second, a New Mexico PBS feature, was first broadcast in 2001 on KNME TV. Both offer archival footage of Laura herself, speaking in her own voice of her life and her art. Both hearken back to another time, one that lingers on not only here in New Mexico and in Santa Fe itself, but also on our own quiet campus, which owes both its existence and much of its beauty to that founding generation of distinctively talented and generous friends and benefactors.