Doris Ulmann – A History Lesson

Doris Ulmann, [Child, South Carolina], ca. 1929-32

A little girl between seven and ten years old takes a step towards the viewer. Her splayed hands suggest she’s unsure of her footing, her feet positioned as if walking a plank or a tightrope. The dust covering her feet and hands—both rather large for a child her size—suggest an existence of manual labor. The cuffed sleeves on her white dress reveal that it’s too large for her small frame, its age betrayed by the stretched pocket and the many stains. It is a very simple dress, almost utilitarian, its only concession to vanity the vaguely floral shape of its collar.

The subtle s-curve defined by the hem of the dress, while no doubt an accident, adds to the elegance, the fluidity of the movement. Is she playing, posing, or just going about her daily chores?The image draws you in with subtle diagonals defined by the deep shadows under the foliage, and the implied line between the bucket in the lower right corner, her feet, and the light streaks on the floor behind her. Although low in contrast, the extended tonality is consistent with platinum prints, which this gravure mimics, the off-white dress contrasting neatly against the girl’s black skin and the large leaves in the background. So rich are the tones that after staring long enough at this print, one can almost start to see the green in the leaves and the rich brown of the ground.

Photographer Doris Ulmann dedicated the last decade of her life traveling through the country shooting uniquely American archetypes: the people of the Appalachians; black workers in the South; Native Americans; and the Creole and Cajun populations of New Orleans. Her timing coincides with America’s renewed interest in its roots after World War I.

This work is part of a series of ninety-three portraits of plantation workers in South Carolina that was published in the book Roll, Jordan, Roll  in 1933 by Robert O. Ballou; the gravure was removed from the original publication. Popular culture’s representation of black people at the time was far from flattering or dignified and it is a testament to Ulmann’s work that this publication was endorsed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its sympathetic representations.

While Ulmann aspired to document people and cultures she feared would disappear, she was dismissed as a Pictorialist until her rediscovery in the 1970s. Stylistically, the poses, situations, and lighting in this series echo the work of Jean-François Millet and other Romantic painters. Unlike contemporaries who relied on models, props, and re-enacted or manufactured scenes, Ulmann chose to photograph real people in real-life situations. These aspects aligned her with documentary photographers of the 1930s. These portraits imbue her subjects with dignity and manage to avoid condescension or voyeurism, which is doubly remarkable for the time period and her background. Ulmann was a wealthy New York socialite who also shot portraits of contemporary celebrities such as Albert Einstein, Martha Graham, Helen Keller, Isamu Noguchi, and Ansel Adams.

My love of fashion imagery led me to choose this piece, which was included in the 2009 exhibit This is Not a Fashion Photograph at ICP. I was seduced by the work’s simplicity and the elusive elegance of the girl’s gesture. This simple step radiated an effortless grace later aped by fashion plates of the 1960s, where models in A-line dresses perched precariously on high heels would strike similar, though contrived poses. The discovery of this piece was a pleasant surprise for me, as I no idea I’d be walking away with a history lesson.

Thierry Casias, ICP General Studies in Photography Program

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2 Responses to Doris Ulmann – A History Lesson

  1. Ryan says:

    Opening the second week of March is a small exhibition of Ulmann’s original platinum prints on display at George Eastman House museum for the next little while. It’s certainly worth checking out.

  2. erinbarnett says:

    As Ryan mentioned, the entire Roll, Jordan, Roll series will be on view in Rochester. You can read more about the show here:

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