Doris Ulmann


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Photographer. In records of vanishing rural subcultures, she achieved a unique synthesis of pictorialist poetry, modern formal rigor, and social documentation. Throughout her career, she treated portraits as the index of human experience. Born in New York, after graduating from high school in 1900, she continued her education at the progressive Ethical Culture School, where she worked with Lewis Hine. Later she took classes at Columbia University and elsewhere, while also beginning to photograph friends and family. Following marriage in 1914 to Charles Jaeger, a medical doctor and amateur photographer who had studied with Clarence White, she too studied with White and soon became absorbed in portrait photography. Along with her husband, she participated in establishing the Pictorial Photographers of America in 1916. Divorced by late 1921, within a few years she turned her attention to documenting lifestyles of traditional communities. She normally traveled for half or more of each year, visiting out-of-the-way places where premodern patterns prevailed. She ranged from New England to New Orleans but specialized in Appalachia and the South. Ulmann worked with a cumbersome, old-fashioned view camera, which required long exposures and motionless subjects. Posed in natural light and often monumentalized, her sitters, generally seen individually or in small groups, evince great solemnity, while the soft-focus lens she favored slightly generalizes and universalizes their individuality. The resulting character studies emphasize dignity, strength, resilience, and the sitters' emotional ties to each other. Ulmann's best-known series records life among some four hundred Gullah African Americans in South Carolina. Collected as Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933; reissued the following year in a deluxe edition with additional plates), with text by novelist Julia Peterkin, Ulmann's images romanticize a way of life barely touched by the Civil War and realize her intention to honor the human values embodied in an agricultural, deeply religious way of life. She shared a desire to recuperate a “true” America with many of the period's artists and intellectuals who promoted appreciation of early American art, architecture, and crafts. The fascination with American origins also flowered among regionalists in the American Scene movement and among other documentarians, notably several of the Farm Security Administration photographers. Ulmann's photographs also appeared after her death in Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (1937), with text by Allen Eaton. She died at her home in New York.

Subjects: Art.

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