When I first saw the striking black and white photograph, I was spellbound. A burst of sun rays beamed down over the sweeping plains of the Yucatecan Monte, breathtakingly taken from behind a column high above the site of Chichén Itzá.
I began to imagine the photographer, Laura Gilpin, packing her heavy gear as she prepared for her long journey to Chichén Itzá from the United States in the 1940s. Her gear would have been heavy and clunky. She shot with a large format viewfinder camera that used 4×5-inch film. The camera was so large and had so many intricate, moving parts that she always had to set it up and use it with a tripod. When I see her standing next to the trusty 4×5 camera in her portrait, I can imagine the work it took for Laura to plan how she was going to get the camera, tripod, and dozens of film holders all the way up to the top of the spot where she could snap one of her most famous shots, the iconic sunbeam photograph.
Laura and I also share something else in common. Like I did when I first came six years ago, Laura fell instantly in love with México. After she visited Yucatán in 1932 with a group of students, she promised herself she would photograph the Maya pyramids that had captivated her imagination.
It took nearly a dozen years for her to return, but she kept her promise. She lovingly documented the landscapes and architecture at Chichén Itzá and compiled them into a book, “Temples in Yucatan: A camera chronicle of Chichén Itzá,” which she published in 1948. The book is one of my favorite possessions because it is Laura’s love letter to México and Yucatán. I treasure the pages which are packed with information about the site and, of course, Gilpin’s beautiful and detailed photographs.
Laura was never daunted by what she knew it would take to get that perfect shot. As an artist working in large format photography myself, I know how much grit and determination it took to be a professional landscape photographer in the early days of the profession. She is a true historical pioneer from a time when women weren’t encouraged to be the artists behind the camera. Her beautiful imagery and her trailblazing path inspire me every day in my own life and artistic practice.
Although more than seventy years have come and gone since she captured those images, Laura’s message is enduring: the beauty and majesty of the Maya culture is eternal.
By Natalie Baur
Photo credits, with permission.
Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), [Sunburst, Kukulcan, Chichen Itza, Yucatan],1932, gelatin silver print, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist, P1979.145.267, © 1979 Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), Steps of the Castillo, Chichen Itza, 1932, gelatin silver print, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, P1964.130, © 1979 Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Fred E. Mang Jr. (b. 1924), Laura Gilpin, ca. 1970, gelatin silver print, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of Laura Gilpin, P1979.151.13.
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