Doris Ulmann’s Arresting Portraits of The People of Appalachia

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Rebecca Fulleylove

Man with a Shotgun (c. 1930) by Doris UlmannThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Discover the photographer's journey to this rich part of America

Doris Ulmann (1882 – 1934) was a native New Yorker and through her images she captured the rural cultures of the southeastern states of America creating solemn yet powerful portraits.

Before becoming a photographer, Ulmann had graduated from Columbia University and intended to become a psychology teacher. She’d previously only experimented with photography as a hobby, but decided to dedicate herself to it professionally in 1918.

The photographer trained in her new field and graduated from the Clarence H White School of Modern Photography in New York. Other students from the school who went on to become notable photographers include Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Anne Brigman.

Man with a shotgun by Doris Ulmann (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Ulmann was trained as a pictorialist. This was an aesthetic popular in the 19th and 20th century and while there was no clear-cut definition, it generally refers to a style in which rather than simply recording a scene, the photographer “creates” an image from it. So typically, a pictorial photograph often lacked a sharp focus, was printed in one or more colors other than black and white, and sometimes had other manipulations to the surface like brushstrokes. It was a way for photographers in this style to impart an emotional intent into the photograph and affect the viewer on a different level than documentary photography achieved.

Ulmann's early work includes a series of portraits of prominent intellectuals, artists, and writers including: William Butler Yeats, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, and Lillian Gish. Ulmann once said in an interview about her 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.”

Two Men at Work (c. 1916-1925) by Doris UlmannMinneapolis Institute of Art

Two men at work by Doris Ulmann (From the collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

[Laundry Day, North Carolina] (about 1929) by Doris UlmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Melungeon woman, North Carolina by Doris Ulmann (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

The photographer’s interests went beyond the literati though and in 1932 she began her most important series, her portraits of the people of Appalachia – a cultural region in the USA that stretches from the southern tier of New York to northern Alabama and Georgia. Since its recognition as a distinctive region in the late 19th century, Appalachia has been a source of myth and distortions regarding the isolation, temperament, and behavior of its inhabitants.

Traveling through the American South from Appalachia and the Sea Islands of South Carolina, to the deep South and New Orleans, Ulmann’s photographs were different to the stereotypical impressions of the region that had begun circulating. Inhabitants of the region were often painted as uneducated and prone to impulsive acts of violence. Ulmann instead paid respect to her subjects and within the lush, dreamy aesthetic she created, her portraits of craftsmen, musicians, and tradespeople were dignified and stoic.

[Black Woman in Cap and Gingham Dress] (1929–1930) by Doris UlmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Woman in cap and gingham dress by Doris Ulmann (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Cherokee Woman, North Carolina (about 1929) by Doris UlmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Cherokee woman in North Carolina by Doris Ulmann (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

On choosing subjects to photograph, Ulmann once said: “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.”

Ulmann was on the road for two years, but her travels around the country soon came to a halt. The photographer’s health began to fail and she collapsed in August 1934 while working near Asheville, North Carolina. Ulmann returned to New York and she died a few weeks later on August 28, age 52.

After her death, a foundation Ulmann had established took custody of her images. Allen Eaton, John Jacob Nile, Olive Dame Campbell, her brother-in-law Henry L Necarsulmer and Helen Dingman were all named trustees.

[Arminda "Aunt Mindy" Anderson Curtis, and friend] (1930 - 1934) by Doris UlmannThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Arminda "Aunt Mindy" Anderson Curtis and friend by Doris Ulmann (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Samuel H Lifshey, a New York commercial photographer developed the 2,000 negatives Ulmann had exposed during her final trip and made proof prints from the vast archive of over 10,000 glass plate negatives she left behind. He went onto produce the prints that eventually went into Allen Eaton’s 1937 landmark book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. The book was a study into the techniques and characteristics of the functional and decorative handicrafts of Southern Appalachia and included photographs of the artisans and their products taken by Ulmann.

Ulmann’s photographs, negatives, and prints can now be found in various collections across America including Berea College, The University of Kentucky, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives and the J. Paul Getty Museum among others. Ulmann was an extremely private person and left no documentation of her life other than her images, highlighting the photographer’s inherent interest in the faces and stories of the people who sat for her over the years.

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