Doris Ulmann Collection

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Niles lugging camerasDoris Ulmann: Preface and Recollections

This is John Jacob Niles dictating what you might call a preface to the story of Doris Ulmann.

Doris Ulmann stood about five feet five inches, and weighed about 105 pounds. This would seem to be a very small weight for one of that height, but Miss Ulmann suffered from a stomach difficulty, and ate very sparingly. She was able to get a proper diet when she was at home, but when she was in the South she was exposed to what she humorously called the poorest cooking in North America. She drank a great quantity of very strong coffee, and practically no alcohol. Water bothered her. She thought it was only good for running under bridges.

Left: Niles lugging camera equipment, PH038-27-3288.

Her clothes were fabulously beautiful: she even managed to wear beautiful hats. She wore floor length dresses and her summer dresses were particularly attractive to the women in the South. She had, I remember in the summer of 1933, magnificent dotted swiss dresses -- very, very full, beautiful things. They were covered with dust from our wanderings on the back roads, so she had to have a clean one every day. When we rode horseback in the backwoods she wore some delightful jodhpurs. The men folk got a considerable kick out of the city girl in tight pants.

She traveled in a great overgrown Lincoln with a cloth top. It contained seats enough for eight persons, and had an enormous baggage compartment in the back. This Lincoln was what we used when we were in the field of the South. Her German chauffeur, George Ubler, drove it; I never touched it. I had my own car then, a Chevrolet, and it went into places where a mule would hardly be caught.

Miss Ulmann depended upon her servants. She had two cooks in the house who doubled as serving maids and cleanup women, and George functioned as both chauffeur and handyman. She depended upon us all in every field except in her photography. If I ever assisted her, she stood over me and watched everything I did, telling me forty times how to do the simplest operations, how to pick up the glass plates and how to put them in the frame to dry. She mixed all the chemicals, She did let me make prints occasionally, but I would get weary of the enterprise about midnight, and move on, and she'd continue working until the early hours of the morning.

When she traveled in the Lincoln, Miss Ulmann carried hundreds of glass plates which she put into new holders each night, taking out the exposed plates and putting them back into very carefully shrouded cases and boxes. You can imagine how much 75 plate holders with two glass plates in each would weigh. I carried them on my back up the trails in two big oilcloth sacks, along with the camera, the lens box, and the tripod.

Several times in 1933 and 1934 she sent her chauffeur and her big automobile all the way to New York where he delivered the exposed plates and brought back six or eight boxes of new plates. She was one of Eastman's good customers for the DC Ortho 6¼x8¼ and 8x10 plates. We carried yards of black cloth which we tacked up at windows and made a dark room in the hotel for her so she could change plates.

She was willing to put up with any kind of weather, any kind of heat, any kind of rain, any kind of discomfort - poor beds, and as I said before, poor food - for the sake of getting to some out-of-the-way, Godforsaken spot where some ancient with a long white beard and a shock of white hair was sitting in front of his little cabin. They seemed to be waiting for her, the old women at the spinning wheels, the younger women sitting at the loom, and the children carding wool, pulling weeds in tobacco beds, or gathering up flinders of tobacco and tying them up with little strings.

These were the people who she really wanted to get down on paper for posterity. She thought they would finally disappear, and there would be no more of them. I have lived to see that there is a mistake in this kind of thinking, because I find now, twenty years after her death, that the men are developing exactly as they did in 1930. They're turning out to be the same kind of old boys with a shock of white hair, even though they do listen to the radio, and occasionally see television. They're not much different from their fabulous grandfathers.

Miss Ulmann's point of view about the people she photographed was quite simple. She concluded that there would always be someone with a snapshot camera to photograph the pretty girls with frills, dresses and curled hair, made-up eyes and lips. She was concerned not with these people, but with genuine, downright individuals. You had to be an individual, a character more or less, before she was interested in you even a little bit. She photographed a great many doctors. She photographed a great many scientists. She photographed musicians and actors. She photographed Italian fruit vendors on Bleeker Street; we made a tour over to Boston where we photographed the Harvard dons. But she felt that all of them had some quality that could be called genuine, and she didn't see them as dressed-up people with pressed pants and well-tied neckties at all.

She saw beyond that to the person who was doing something. I think she loved most the white mountaineers, the old patriarch types; she loved the old women and the little children, but particularly the old ones. She saw in their faces the care and the trouble of the awful effort they had made to carry on life now that they had reached the afternoon or evening of their days. She felt that it was her job to get a good clear impression of it on one of her plates. It was a tremendous opportunity for a city woman, a city-bred woman like Doris, to come into these isolated backwoods places and see the highlanders-see them work and play, see them up close in their houses, sit with them, talk with them, philosophize with them, and finally photograph them. Of course, I took down a good deal of the thins that they said, and tried to take down the music they would sing.

Once upon a time in Gatlinburg, Kentucky, we had come up the side of a hill to photograph a bee man, and were starting back, both riding on horses. I had on a very fancy pair of army-made jodhpurs and I was loaded with a camera and lens box and a couple of tripods. I'm supposed to be a horseman, and Doris was a helpless, city-bred girl who had been on a horse very few times in her life. She was getting along very well, but my horse apparently stepped too far to the right, and his hind leg on that side went down.

The path was very narrow, and then before I knew it his hindquarters were down and I was wedged between a tree and the side of a ravine, and there I hung. I dumped the lens box and the camera and the tripods off, and in the operation I lost my hold on the horse and fell off to the side and rolled down the ravine though the briars and bushes. My clothes were a complete mess-one sleeve was torn out of my coat, and I believe I finally gave everything away except the shoes.

I was supplied with an entire new outfit. Whenever I spoiled any of my clothes a new collection appeared almost as if by magic in the next mail, and Miss Ulmann took away the old clothes from me and gave them to one of the local boys. She gave out clothes all the way up and down the country.

I was patched and plastered considerably, but in twenty-four hours I was ready to go on again. I had been given anti-tetanus inoculations, and that made me unsteady, and I broke out in a lot of welts on the side of my face. Doris teased me, saying that I had developed one of the unfortunate diseases.

Christopher Lewis, preacher. Wooten, Kentucky. PH038-22-2676

This will give you some idea of the extent to which we went to get what we wanted in the way of photography and legend. It wasn't all as serious or difficult as this. A great deal of it was very easy. We would pull up in front of someone's house right beside a very nicely paved road, take out the camera, set it up, and I would say, "Folks, we have come to take your picture," and they would line up in a row and that was all there was to it. They would bring down spinning wheels and portions of looms and cards and other things, and show us how their ancestors carried on, and we would photograph then in their granny's old linsey-woolsey dresses.

One experience we had on horseback was a trip we made into Grassy Valley, which is on the edge of Tennessee and North Carolina, not far from the magnificent highway now called Skyway Drive. There we encountered an old granny woman who was more than 100 years old. We photographed her looming, we photographed her spinning, we photographed her carding wool, we photographed her with her delightful great-great-grandson who was a weaver of some ability. She sold a considerable crop of wool, all carded and spun, directly to a group of people in Ashville, who sent it in turn, she said, all the way to the Hebrides, in Scotland.

Miss Ulmann seldom spoiled a plate. I can remember a few, but very few. This was because of her great deliberation. She went about everything very slowly, very carefully; she thought it all out long in advance. There was no hurry-up, no snapshot business. Snapshot photography was the end of vulgarities so far as she was concerned. When I demanded a Roliflex and got it and everything that went with it, Doris immediately looked upon me as a complete faker. Up to that time I had been working with a 4x5 and using DC Ortho plates, and doing some pretty fair things, and as soon as she saw me with this snapshot affair she put me down on the bottom of the page.

She wanted to pose everything she photographed, and her statement was, "Pose but don't let it seem posed." This, of course, is more of the most difficult things in the world to do, and she was able to do it quite marvelously. Moving objects were never effective as subjects for her photography. She posed some dancers once, and took some very pretty pictures with their feet in the air, toes pointed.

She did some wonderful pinholes. I made her a set of plates to slip into her lens board in place of a lens. These plates had graduated holes in them, one of 64th of an inch, and one of them 128th of an inch. I had to have a jeweler in New York City drill that hole. This type of photography is a very simple affair: you pull out a plate guard and everything has to stand still. You allow the camera to stand 20 to 30 minutes, and the results are likely to be stereoscopic.

Miss Ulmann's illness caught up with her terribly during the summer of 1933 and into the early days of 1934. As she grew less able to move around I began to take over the tasks of the photography more and more. The last days we worked together was on the top of a mountain called Turkey Mountain, south of Ashville a little way. We went up there and photographed a man in a tobacco patch, a man who sang a complete version of "Mattie Grove"-something I had been looking for for a long time. Miss Ulmann photographed him standing among his wonderful tobacco, higher than his head.

We got her to Scranton and the doctor came to look at her, and said to get her to New York as soon as possible. We got her there on August 4 and in the early morning she died.

I think she left behind her tremendous tradition. She financed my work, she paid me well, restored my clothing, had my watch repaired when it was smashed down on the mountain side. One of the last few things she ever said to me was, "Johnny, you're a poet, you don't need much. Poets don't need much. If you overpay them they stop being poets." She was extremely smart on that point.

I believe that is about all I can give you about this perfectly remarkable woman-this woman who gave her life to the idea of photographing simple Americans.

-John Jacob Niles

[transcribed from a tape recording]

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