Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann

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Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann

Author: Philip Walker Jacobs

Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), one of the foremost photographers of the early part of the twentieth century, had a deep and lasting love affair with the dignity and complexity of the human condition. Born into a New York Jewish family with a tradition of service, Ulmann sought to portray and document individuals from various groups that she feared would change or vanish altogether from American life.

Inspired by the paintings of the European old masters and by the photographs of Hill and Adamson and Clarence White, Ulmann produced unique and substantial portrait studies of writers, educators, and society figures from her Park Avenue studio. Later, she traveled throughout the middle Atlantic, Appalachia, and the deep south. Using an old-fashioned view front camera, she sought to document the beuty, mystery, and diversity of the American people. Her subjects included Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, African American basket weavers from South Carolina, shakers, and Kentucky mountain musicians.

Ulmann’s photographs, particularly her portraits, have been compared to Rembrandt’s work, especially in their use of light. Even when she worked as a photographic documentation in recording a young African American woman packing asparagus, Ulmann still approached her subject from the perspective of a painter. She strove to create dignified and respectful photographic renderings of people often dishonored or ignored. To this end, Ulmann created over 10,000 photographs and illustrated five books, including Roll and Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands.