Doris Ulmann (1882-1934) was born and educated in New York City. A graduate of the school of the Ethical Culture Society, a socially liberal organization that championed individual worth regardless of ethnic background or economic condition. Ulmann continued her education at the Columbia University Teacher's College, where she met and studied with photographer Clarence H. White. White was a founding member of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession and a leader in the Pictorialist movement.
When her teacher founded the Clarence H. White School of Photography in 1914, Ulmann took up the study of photography with greater intensity and began establishing herself in the New York photographic community by joining the Pictorialist Photographers of America and publishing her work in their journal, Pictorial Photography in America. During this period, Ulmann photographed many genre scenes, tableaux, and portraits exemplary of the soft-focus Pictorialist style. 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 the late 1920's Ulmann found her signature style when she began making trips each summer to document 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, Ulmann took portraits and photographs of artisans at work. Ulmann was accompanied on her rural travels by John Jacob Niles, a Kentucky-born musician and folklorist, who served as a guide and assistant to Ulmann and pursued his own research in Appalachian music, as well.
In early August of 1934, at the age of 50, Ulmann fell ill while photographing subjects near Ashville, North Carolina. She was rushed home to New York City where she died August 28th. During this acute illness, she had only a brief time in which to secure the future of her vast collection of photographs, proofs, and glass-plate negatives. She established the Doris Ulmann Foundation, which transfered the entire contents of her studio to storage at the Columbia University Library. In the early 1950's, as Columbia University expanded its collection, the Foundation was forced to find a permanent home. Foundation trustee Allen Eaton, a native Oregonian and author of a book on craft for which Ulmann photographed illustrations, arranged for the bulk of the material to be transferred to the University of Oregon Library's Special Collections.
The University of Oregon's Doris Ulmann Photography Collection casts a wide net across a number of related 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.
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.
Materials in the Library's Ulmann Collection include 2,739 silver gelatin glass plate negatives, 304 original matted prints, and 79 albums (containing over 10,000 proof prints) assembled by the Doris Ulmann Foundation. 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 S.H. Lifshey after Ulmann's death. The silver gelatin glass plate negatives held by the University of Oregon's Special Collections are the only known remaining Ulmann negatives. Due to hast and prohibitive shipping costs, the foundation destroyed the bulk of Ulmann's negatives (over seven thousand in all) when transferring the collection to Oregon. Even still, the foundation shipped nearly three-quarters of a ton of glass plate negatives and additional materials, making this one of the most extensive and unique collections of Ulmann's work in existence. The general breakdown by subject of the Library's glass plate negatives is: Appalachia 70-75%, South Carolina 10-15%, "Celebrity" Portraits 10%, Landscapes and still lifes 5%.
The New York Historical Society, Berea College, and the University of Kentucky also have significant holdings of Ulmann photographs.
Additional information on the University of Oregon's Ulmann holdings can be found on through Special Collections.
Featherstone, David. Doris Ulmann, American Portraits. Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985
Jacobs, Philip Walker. The Life and Photograhy of Doris Ulmann. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001
The project is managed jointly by Special Collections & University Archives and Metadata Services and Digital Projects.
For questions or information about the photograph collection, contact Normandy Helmer, Access & Preservation Officer for Special Collections & University Archives.