In honor of the death of Pete Seeger last week, this week’s blog will highlight the work of another champion of American folk music and crafts: the photographer Doris Ulmann (1882-1934).
Like Seeger, Ulmann was born in Manhattan, and seemed an unlikely candidate to work in the rural South. The eldest daughter of a prosperous German-Jewish father and American mother, Ullman was trained as a teacher at the Ethical Culture School, graduating in 1903. She later married a doctor, Charles H. Jaeger, and began to study psychology at Columbia University. While there, she also took a photography course with Clarence H. White, and became one of his most devoted students. Ulmann’s husband, Dr. Jaeger, was also an amateur photographer and protoge of Clarence White, and both Ulmann and Jaeger were members of the Pictorial Photographers of America, which White helped to found. By 1918, Ulmann had adopted photography as her profession.
Ulmann began her career as a studio portraitist, photographing and publishing pictures of notable doctors, lawyers, scientists, and writers — the fitting offshoot of her life as the wife of a a leading orthopedic surgeon and fellow photographer. But in the mid-1920’s, Ulmann and Jaeger divorced, and Ulmann began to pursue a new direction in her photography. She set off on a series of extensive, annual car excursions south to the Appalachian mountain states and further into Louisiana and South Carolina. John Jacob Niles, composer and collector of American folk ballads, accompanied her to help with the heavy equipment, and conducted his own research on Appalachian musicians and ballad singers.
Together, Ulmann and Niles began to document the culture of the Southern Highlands. While Ulmann captured the “vanishing types” of mountain craftsmen and other rural residents in photographic portraits, Niles transcribed traditional songs from oral sources. Ulmann was particularly moved, she said, by “a face that has the marks of living intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power.” Her Appalachian portraits reflect this preference; although Ulmann also photographed children and young adults, the majority of her portraits depict elderly people, reflecting Ulmann’s belief that “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’s best-known work was produced when she visited the South Carolina plantation of her friend, novelist Julie Peterkin, who employed a large community of Gullah workers to cultivate her fields (the Gullahs were descendents of West African slaves who settled mainly on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and developed a distinctive creole language and culture). The two women collaborated on Roll Jordan Roll, a book that documents, through Peterkin’s words and Ulmann’s images, the vanishing Gullah culture. Widely regarded as Ulmann’s finest work, the fine art edition of Roll Jordan Roll, issued in 1933, has been described as one of the most beautiful books ever produced.
Like Seeger, however, Ulmann’s aims were not merely artistic. By documenting what seemed to be a more authentic way of life, Ulmann hoped to promote interest in American regional culture. To this end, she spent the last two years of her life documenting the handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, photographs that were later used to illustrate Allen Eaton’s landmark book Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. “I am of course glad to have people interested in my pictures as examples of art,” Ulmann told Eaton, “but my great wish is that these human records serve some social purpose.”
Always a sickly and frail person, Ulmann did not live to see the publication of Eaton’s book, which appeared in 1937. She died in 1934 at the age of 52. Eaton later lamented that she “didn’t realize that she had made the most definitive collection of rural characters, certainly in the field of handicrafts, that’s been done any place in the world.” The New-York Historical Society is fortunate to have, in the Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection, the largest known body of prints made by Ulmann herself.