Doris Ulmann (1882-1934) was one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth century, yet until now there has never been a biography of this fascinating, gifted artist. Born into a New York Jewish family with a tradition of service, Ulmann sought to portray and document individuals from various groups that she feared would vanish from American life. In the last eighteen years of her life, Ulmann created over 10,000 photographs and illustrated five books, including Roll, Jordan, Roll and Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands.
Inspired by the paintings of the European old masters and by the photographs of Hill and Adamson and Clarence White, Ulmann produced unique and substantial portrait studies. Working in her Park Avenue studio and traveling throughout the east coast, Appalachia, and the deep South, she carefully studied and photographed the faces of urban intellectuals as well as rural peoples. Her subjects included Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, African American basket weavers from South Carolina, and Kentucky mountain musicians. Relying on newly discovered letters, documents, and photographs -- many published here for the first time -- Philip Jacobs's richly illustrated biography secures Ulmann's rightful place in the history of American photography.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was given this book as a gift and for a brief time it just sat on my coffee table (it really is a handsome enough volume to qualify for that purpose!) -- but I soon became drawn to Ulmann's fascinating biography and, of course, to the photographs themselves. Born in 1882 to an affluent German-Jewish family in New York, Ulmann found that her true calling was not as a successful doctor's wife but as a photographer of the poor and rural South. She photographed her subjects at work and at prayer and this book is full of her remarkable and insightful images. Philip W. Jacobs has done an amazing job of tracking down Ulmann's letters and archives -- a truly impressive piece of scholarship. I think both scholars and the general reader will find this book eye-opening and rich in scope and detail.
In his important book, The Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann, Philip Walker Jacobs brings renewed attention to the life of a substantial artist whose agenda was 'to create dignified and respectful photographic paintings' as well as to 'honor those who were often dishonored.' Doris Ulmann is easily in the league of photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, yet her work is much less known. A detailed examination of her background and influences is long overdue. Jacobs has organized hundreds of relevant personal letters and scattered references into a coherent framework which reveals Ulmann as a privileged but lonely woman who struggled with poor health throughout her relatively short life. Ulmann is highly regarded for her portraits of Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, H.L. Mencken, and others in New York's intellectual and art scene. However, she also completed a series documenting Appalachian and African-American subjects in the 20's and 30's. Her work in South Carolina with plantation workers and with the residents of the Southern Highlands in North Carolina is the cornerstone of her reputation today. Of particular interest here are documents which illuminate the often disturbing roles which musician and folklorist John Jacob Niles and South Carolina novelist Julia Peterkin played in her personal life and in the development of her art. Jacobs' biography also examines the roots of Ulmann's style in her study with Clarence White and in her admiration of the ground-breaking portraiture of Adamson and Hill. This extensively researched account also gives readers a basis for understanding the dignity and quiet sympathy which is present in her images. Some of the portraits are somehow tinged with sadness, and Ulmann's own story helps us to analyze why. The portraits of doctors and members of urban society reflect, perhaps, her longing to be accepted by them as a woman and as an artist. On the other hand, when her marriage broke up and her health began to fail, she discovered bonds with people of a different class and culture entirely. Ulmann created more than 10,000 images over a twenty-year period. A good sampling of those (about 70 sepia photographs) are contained here. Anyone who is interested in photographs of the Depression-era South, in portrait photography, or in the progress of American photography as an art form, should consider this book a must-have.