Doris Ulmann

(1882 - 1934) American


Born in New York City, Doris Ulmann became interested in photography when training to become a teacher at the Ethical Culture School in her native New York City, while Lewis Hine was an instructor there. She took photography courses with Clarence H. White at Columbia University and continued to study with him at the Clarence H. White School of Photography between 1913 and 1917. In 1918, she decided to pursue a career in photography, devoting herself to studio portraiture. Her Pictorialist-inspired portraits were published in books, including A Portrait Gallery of American Editors (1925), and in journals such as Pictorial Photography in America and Photo-Era (1920). Around 1925, in the wake of increasing urbanization and modernization in the United States, Ulmann became interested in preserving rural traditions and folklore. She traveled extensively throughout southern Appalachia as well as in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York, where she photographed Dunkard, Shaker, and Mennonite communities. She collaborated on several projects with her traveling partner, John Jacob Niles, who was working on a similar project involving American folk songs and musical traditions. Ulmann made the photographs for Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933), Julia Peterkin's novel that explored the folk life of African American Gullah residents on Peterkin's Lang Syne Plantation in South Carolina. Ulmann continued to travel and photograph in the South until her death.
Doris Ulmann's photographs of people in the Appalachian regions of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina produced between 1927 and 1934 are her best-known works. Although often idealized views, her finely printed images have become invaluable documents of African American and white southern folk life of the time. Not only are her images among the limited evidence of these traditions, but they mark an important shift in American photographic portraiture from Pictorialism to documentary.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 230.
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