Doris Ulmann Collection

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Image: Portrait of Doris Ulmann. PH038-61-7678 [Image reversed.]

portrait of Doris UlmannDoris Ulmann, Pictorialist photographer

Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), was a native of New York City, the daughter of Bernhard and Gertrude (Mass) Ulmann. Educated in public school-at the School of Ethical Culture, a socially liberal organization that championed individual worth regardless of ethnic background or economic condition-and Columbia University, she intended to become a teacher of psychology. Her interest in photography was at first a hobby, but after 1918 she devoted herself to the art professionally. She was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Ulmann documented the rural people of the South, particularly the mountain peoples of Appalachia and the Gullahs of the Sea Islands, with a profound respect for her sitters and an ethnographer's eye for culture.

Her work was exhibited in various New York galleries, and published in Theatre Arts Monthly, Mentor, Scribner's Magazine, and Survey Graphic. In 1922 Johns Hopkins University published her Book of Portraits of the Medical Faculty of the Johns Hopkins University; in 1925 Rudge issued A Portrait Gallery of American Editors, and in 1933, Ballou published (in various editions) Roll, Jordan Roll, the text by Julia Peterkin.

In an interview with Dale Warren of Bookman Doris Ulmann referred to her particular interest in portraits. "The faces of men and women in the street are probably as interesting as literary faces, but my particular human angle leads me to men and women who write. I am not interested exclusively in literary faces, because I have been more deeply moved by some of my mountaineers than by any literary person. A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life." ("Doris Ulmann: Photographer-in-waiting," Bookman, 72, 129-144.)

Trained as a pictorialist by Clarence White, Ulmann's early work includes a series of portraits of prominent intellectuals, artists and writers: William Butler Yeats, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, and Lillian Gish. In 1932 Ulmann began her most important series, assembling documentation of Appalachian folk arts and crafts for Allen Eaton's 1937 book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. From 1927, Ulmann was assisted on her rural travels by John Jacob Niles, a musician and folklorist who collected ballads while Ulmann photographed. Doris Ulmann died August 28, 1934.

Niles carrying Ulmann across streamNiles carrying Ulmann across Cut Shine Creek. PH038-34-4154

The Doris Ulmann photograph collection casts a wide net across a fields throughout the humanities: social and cultural history, women's studies, African-American studies, ethnography, and the history of photography. Ulmann's photographs represent important primary source material for historical and ethnographic studies of Appalachian and Gullah culture as well the subject of folk arts and craft traditions. Her photographs show detailed images of Appalachian craftspeople quilting, whittling, weaving, hooking rugs, spinning, and making baskets and ceramic ware. Ulmann often took a series of photographs of a craftsperson's hands while they worked in order to illustrate the technique involved in their craft. Recent activity in the field of Appalachian studies can be seen in Garry Barker's monograph, The Handicraft Revival in Southern Appalachia, 1930-1990 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991). In the foreword to the book, Allen Eaton is credited with setting the stage and helping the craft revival happen: Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands is still used as the reference in the study of Appalachian crafts prior to 1935.

Crossing Cut Shine Creek

I remember once we were in the vicinity of Higdon, Kentucky, and we were trying to get across Cut Shine Creek. The rocky creek was wide and shallow. I picked Doris up and piggy-backed her across the creek. I didn't get more than half-way across when she said, "Let's go back, go back to the other side." We set up a camera. There was a boy handy. She gave him instructions on exactly just how to lift up the lens cap (she never used the shutter), how long to count and how to put it back. She said, "We're going to get a photograph of this operation." You see, she knew drama when she saw it coming.

So I picked her up again and started across the creek a second time and in the middle of it I stopped, and she said, "Okay, little boy, take off the lens cap." He did, and put it back, and I went on, deposited her on the other side, and went back and picked up the camera, put in a new plate, covered it up with a black cloth and brought it across to her. The picture was developed, and it turned out to be a very delightful thing--Doris riding on my back across Cut Shine Creek.

-John Jacob Niles

portrait of Allen EatonAllen Hendershott Eaton (1878-1962), champion of American folk art and Ulmann trustee. PH038-79-2052.

Due in part to Eaton's foresight in the field of Appalachian studies and his later stewardship of the Ulmann archive, Ulmann's work continues to this day to be a vital source of historical interest and primary source material. The Ulmann archive at the University of Oregon also presents a wealth of research material for the history of photography. The albums containing proof prints provide the most complete record of Ulmann's total photographic output. Like a manuscript to a larger "work in progress," the proof prints allow researchers to study the development of Ulmann's technique and composition. The proof prints of Ulmann's studies-including the "mistakes"-provide an essential link in reconstructing the photographer's intention. Furthermore, the comprehensive nature of the albums allows one to analyze Ulmann's working methods and aesthetic objectives over a period spanning two decades.

John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), musician, folklorist, and Ulmann's field assistant. PH038-48-5928.

Upon Ulmann's death, a foundation she had established took custody of her images. Allen Eaton, John Jacob Niles, Olive Dame Campbell (of the Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina), Ulmann's brother-in-law Henry L. Necarsulmer, and Berea schoolteacher Helen Dingman were named trustees. Samuel H. Lifshey, a New York commercial photographer, developed the negatives Ulmann had exposed during her final trip, and then made proof prints from the vast archive of more than 10,000 glass plate negatives. (Lifshey also developed the 2,000 exposed negatives from Ulmann's last expedition, and produced the prints for Eaton's book.) The proof prints were mounted into albums, which were annotated by John Jacob Niles and Allen Eaton, chair of the foundation and another noted folklorist, to indicate names of the sitters and dates of capture. Some 3,000 prints were also produced for Berea College in Kentucky, an institution with which Ulmann had worked with in the last year of her life to document the local crafts traditions. Columbia University was able to provide storage space for the Ulmann materials until the 1950s, when the Foundation was asked to seek a permanent home for the collection. Eaton, who had formerly taught at the University of Oregon, doubtless assisted in attracting the interest of the UO's Martin Schmitt, curator of Special Collections and an early proponent for recognizing historical value within photographs. Although many institutions expressed an interest, the University of Oregon was willing to commit to preserving the collection in its entirety, and became the permanent home of the Doris Ulmann Collection. However, prior to shipping the collection the Foundation made the decision to reduce the weight of materials being shipped by selecting and destroying some 7,000 glass plate negatives. Approximately 2,500 platinum prints docurmenting Ulmann's work in her New York studio were deposited with the New-York Historical Society.

The Ulmann collection includes 2,739 silver gelatin glass plate negatives, 304 original matted prints, and 79 albums (containing over 10,000 Lifshey proof prints) assembled by the Doris Ulmann Foundation between 1934 and 1937. The silver gelatin glass plate negatives are the only known remaining Ulmann negatives. Of the 304 matted photographs, approximately half are platinum prints that were mounted and signed by Ulmann; the others are silver gelatin prints developed by Lifshey. The general breakdown by subject of the Library's glass plate negatives is: Appalachia 70-75 percent, South Carolina 10-15 percent, celebrity portraits ten percent, Landscapes and still lifes five percent. The numbering system used is that devised by the trustees, based on the order the proof prints were placed in the albums.


Published in Ulmann's lifetime

  • Ulmann, D. (1919). The faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York. New York, Hoeber.
  • Ulmann, D. et al. (1922). A book of portraits of the faculty of the Medical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Ulmann, D. (1925). A portrait gallery of American editors. New York, W.E. Rudge.
  • Ulmann, D. (1928). "Among the Southern mountaineers: camera portraits of types of character reproduced from photographs recently made in the highlands of the South," The Mentor, v.16 pp.23-32. New York, N.Y., Crowell Pub. Co.
  • Peterkin, J. M., D. Ulmann, et al. (1933). Roll, Jordan, roll. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill.
  • [unattributed] (1930). "The stuff of American drama in photographs by Doris Ulmann," Theatre Arts Monthly, v. 14 pp. 132-146. New York, NY: Theatre Arts, Inc.

Later works

  • Eaton, A. H., D. Ulmann, et al. (1937). Handicrafts of the Southern highlands; with an account of the rural handicraft movement in the United States and suggestions for the wider use of handicrafts in adult education and in recreation. New York, Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Ulmann, D. (1971). The Appalachian photographs of Doris Ulmann. Penland, N.C. Jargon Society.
  • Ulmann, D., R. Coles, et al. (1974). The darkness and the light. [New York] Aperture.
  • Ulmann, D., J. J. Niles, et al. (1976). The Appalachian photographs. Highlands, N.C., Jargon Society.
  • Ulmann, D. (1976). Photographs of Appalachian craftsmen : a retrospective exhibition, April 6-May 1, 1976. Cullowhee, N.C., Western Carolina University.
  • Ulmann, D., et al. (1978). An exhibition for the dedication of the Traylor Art Building, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky: Doris Ulmann's photographs; ritual clay: Walter Hyleck; the Berea College collection. Berea, Ky., Berea College.
  • Ulmann, D. and D. Willis-Thomas (1981). Photographs by Doris Ulman: the Gullah people [exhibition] June 1-July 31, 1981, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundations. New York, The Library.
  • Banes, R. A. (1985). Doris Ulmann and her mountain folk. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University.
  • Featherstone, D. (1985). Doris Ulmann: American portraits. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.
  • Curtis, E. S., D. Ulmann, et al. (1986). The last photographs. Haverford, Pa., Comfort Gallery Haverford College.
  • Keller, J. (1988). After the manner of women: photographs by Käsebier, Cunningham, and Ulmann. Malibu, Calif., J. Paul Getty Museum.
  • McEuen, M. A. (1991). Changing eyes : American culture and the photographic image, 1918-1941.
  • Oeltman, M. T. (1992). Doris Ulmann, American photographer, and the Southern Agrarian movement.
  • Lovejoy, B. (1993). The oil pigment photography of Doris Ulmann. Lexington, Ky., [s.n.].
  • Lamuniere, M. C., J. M. Peterkin, et al. (1994). Roll, Jordan, roll: the Gullah photographs of Doris Ulmann.University of Oregon.
  • Sperath, A. (1995). Ceramics Kentucky 1995. Murray, Ky., The Gallery.
  • Ulmann, D. (1996). Doris Ulmann: photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Malibu, Calif., The Museum.
  • Ulmann, D. and J. Keller (1996). Doris Ulmann: photography and folklore. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum.
  • Ulmann, D. et al. (1997). Picture gallery photography by Doris Ulmann. University of Oregon.
  • Rosenblum, N., S. Fillin-Yeh, et al. (1998). Documenting a myth: the South as seen by three women photographers, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, Doris Ulmann, Bayard Wootten, 1910-1940. Portland, Or., Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery Reed College.
  • Ulmann, D. et al. (1999). Myth, memory and imagination: universal themes in the life and culture of the South: selections from the collection of Julia J. Norrell. McKissick Museum. Columbia, S.C., McKissick Museum University of South Carolina.
  • Kowalski, S. (2000). Fading light: the case of Doris Ulmann. University of Oregon.
  • Jacobs, P. W. (2001). The life and photography of Doris Ulmann. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky.