Allen Eaton

 

Doris Ulmann Collection

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portrait of Allen EatonAllen Eaton, folk arts champion

Allen Eaton, "champion of the arts in everyday life" and Ulmann trustee. PH038-79-2052.

Allen Hendershott Eaton (1878-1962) graduated from the University of Oregon in 1902. Eaton played an important role in the development of the cultural community in Eugene. He opened the first book and art store in the city, organized its first art exhibition, and taught the University's first art appreciation class. He established the Oregon Collection, an important source of books by Oregonians and about Oregon. He was the youngest member of the Oregon Legislature, serving five terms as representative for Lane County.

In 1917 Eaton attended a meeting of the People's Council for Democracy and Terms of Peace in Chicago, which was associated with the IWW, and was opposed to war. Allen attended only as a representative for a region of upstate New York, declared in advance that he did not agree with the anti-war policies of the People's Council, and was outspoken in support of World War I.

Back in Eugene, Eaton's involvement with the People's Council was subsequently inflated by someone who had disagreed with Eaton's legislative activities. The smear campaign was successful. The Eugene Chamber of Commerce petitioned the University to dismiss Eaton from the faculty. The case came close to causing riots in Eugene, and was widely reported, reaching the national press through a letter to The Nation by Oswald Villard, son of Henry Villard, the railroad baron who was instrumental in keeping the University of Oregon alive in its early years. Although most of the faculty and UO President Prince Lucien Campbell supported Eaton, the Board of Regents agreed to accept his resignation.

Allen Eaton left Eugene immediately and did not return until the 1950s, when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oregon and gave a well-attended lecture.

Eaton became the foremost expert and advocate for American folk arts. His Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands is still considered the authoritative work on Appalachian crafts prior to 1935. He also remained a social activist, chronicling the activities of interned Japanese-Americans in Beauty behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our Relocation Camps. He died in 1962, and his papers passed into a private collection.

As a trustee, Eaton was instrumental in bringing the Doris Ulmann archive to the University of Oregon, testimony that he retained his respect for the institution despite the circumstances that forced his precipitous departure.

Allen Eaton remembers Doris Ulmann

I became acquainted with Doris Ulmann in the late 1920's through a mutual friend, Clarence H. White, well-known American photographer. She had studied under White, and taught in his school of photography. We had other mutual friends--Frederick Goudy, who designed her books, and Bertha Goudy, who set some of the type for them, for Mrs. Ulmann was as particular about the quality of letter-press as she was of the printing of her negatives.

Through this mutual concern over graphic arts we became better acquainted, and I attended every exhibition I could in which she was represented. During one of these shows, about 1930, I spoke to her of the great contribution I felt she was to the art of photography. She replied, "I am of course glad to have people interested in my pictures as examples of the art of photography, but my great wish is that these human records shall serve some social purpose."

It was this conversation that led to the fortuitous combination of Mrs. Ulmann's graphic artistry with a study on the handicrafts of the southern highlands that I had begun under an arrangement with the Russell Sage Foundation.

Some years earlier, Mrs. Ulmann had herself gone into the mountains of southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, securing fine studies of native peoples. Her eagerness to continue this work is unforgettable, and her pleasure at being able to combine her interest with the opportunity to photograph highlands handicraft workers was such that she offered to undertake the project at her own expense. She spent much time in the mountains in 1933 and 1934, and when she returned, ill, to New York in the late summer of 1934 there were over 2,000 undeveloped plates at hand.

While to many her portraits of the southern highlanders will always be Doris Ulmann's outstanding achievement, they constitute only a portion of her work. She photographed world figures, authors, artists, musicians. Three books of portraits were published. Perhaps the most familiar work to the general public is the group illustrations in Roll, Jordan Roll, the text by Julia Peterkin.

Prints of her most important subjects were bequeathed by her to Berea College, Berea, Kentucky. After Mrs. Ulmann's death in 1934, practically everything in her studio except the equipment was transferred to a room in the Columbia University Library. During the next five or six years the collection was organized, undeveloped negatives processed, prints made and distributed, and albums prepared as a key to the whole. This work was under the auspices of the Doris Ulmann Foundation, whose members were Mrs. Olive D. Campbell, Helen H. Dingman, Henry L. Necarsulmer, John Jacob Niles, and Allen H. Eaton.

Until 1952 when the University of Oregon expressed, as the Quakers put it, "a concern" over this collection, there seemed no institution that would agree to keep the negatives intact. There were plenty of institutions which would have been lad to take sections of the negatives and prints, but the aim of the Foundation was preservation of the whole.

The University of Oregon Library had become, by 1952, an important conservator of records of human culture, with a rather special interest in American photography. The Library also had adequate facilities for the care of negatives, even in bulk. The surviving members of the Foundation approved the transfer of the Ulmann negatives to the west coast. The number of negatives was reduced for practical purposes, but the albums, constituting the entire collection of prints, were included in the transfer, so that the complete representation of Doris Ulmann's photographic work is on permanent deposit at Oregon.

-Allen H. Eaton

The Call Number, v.19 no.2 Spring 1958. ©University of Oregon