About the Work of Art:

Laura Gilpin (1891–1979)
Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico, 1946
Gelatin silver print
© 1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist


Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico, 1946, gelatin silver print, ©1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, bequest of the artist, P1978.85.1





Laura Gilpin photographed Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico for her book, The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, an Interpretation of the River, the Land, and the People. The book is divided into three sections: “The Source,” “Midstream,” and “The Border.” These sections visually investigate the river’s impact on human culture “as a source of irrigation water, as a shaper of immigration and settlement patterns, as a repository of mineral wealth, as a source of food for sheep and cattle, as a provider of natural shelter for the earliest settlers and good town sites for the later ones.”

The Rio Grande begins its course in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains as a snow-fed spring that flows into the San Luis Valley. “The Source” explores the cattle, mining, and farming industries in this region. The river then cuts through the middle of New Mexico, from the north to the south. “Midstream” examines the landscape, Pueblo Indians, and Spanish heritage along this section of the river, which is also where the photograph Storm from La Bajada Hill was taken. Finally, the Rio Grande becomes the international boundary between the United States and Mexico from El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. “The Border” illustrates the people and places along the Texas-Mexico border.

While the book includes people in the landscape, Gilpin worked hard to show a region of the United States where the physical environment dominates. She said:

What I consider really fine landscapes are very few and far between. I consider this field one of the greatest challenges and it is the principal reason I live in the west. I for one am willing to drive many miles, expose a lot of film, wait untold hours, camp out to be somewhere at sunrise, make many return trips to get what I am after.

In Storm from La Bajada Hill, which Gilpin considered the best thing in the book, brooding clouds hover over the Jemez Mountains just west of the highway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

[She] saw light breaking through the clouds, stopped her car, hastily set up her tripod, and made two exposures, relying on her intuitive feel for New Mexico light to make her exposures correct. Ansel Adams, she thought, ‘would have stopped and then taken two or three meter readings and then it would have been gone . . . . That is the difference between us. To him photographic technique comes first and to me the picture comes first.’

To make a successful landscape photograph, according to Gilpin, one must have an understanding of the basic elements of design and an appreciation for the way light interacts with the subject, reveals its form, shows its textures, and accents its focal points. Gilpin thought making a photographic work of art was difficult. She wrote:

When one goes out to make a landscape one doesn’t have the control of light as in the studio. Here it is a matter of selection, of waiting for right conditions, of changing one’s point of view. More and more, this photographer has come to the conclusion that the most important thing in the landscape is the foreground. It must lead to the focal point, must be relatively unimportant, and must have the right lines and forms which relate the foreground to the middle distance and the horizon, if there is one. Many good landscapes are spoiled by obtrusive or overpowering foregrounds.

In her book The Rio Grande, Gilpin shows the beauty of the western landscape but also describes:

. . . the landscape as part of a larger cultural environment . . . a human presence even in the most empty vista . . . Even the text that accompanies Storm From La Bajada Hill, a photograph that reveals no signs of human habitation, notes that violent storms can wash away precious top soil and flood arroyos with dangerous rushing water. The emphasis is on human presence: ‘It is thrilling, sometimes terrifying, to watch such a magnificent storm sweep over the land.’


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