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Doris Ulmann Photography

Doris Ulmann began her work in New York City as a portrait photographer around 1920 before she shifted her focus to people on the outskirts of the mainstream society into which she herself had been brought up. The photographer who captured images of Alfred Einstein, Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, and other notables in the medical and literary world became fascinated with what she referred to as vanishing types. Her later photographs ask the viewer to consider Mennonites, Melungeons, African Americans in the Gullah region of South Carolina, and of course, those in the mountains of Appalachia.

Ulmann's privileged upbringing in New York City allowed her to pursue a creative and independent lifestyle not available to most women in the 1920s. After attending Felix Adler's liberal, Jewish-rooted Ethical Culture School, Ulmann studied psychology at Columbia University. She later graduated from Clarence H. White School of Photography, which was devoted solely to artistic photography. Her brief marriage to orthopedic surgeon and fellow photography enthusiast, Charles Jaeger, perpetuated her deeper entrenchment in New York society. Ulmann's early success in the field of photography was evidenced by publication in medical journals, exhibitions, and her association with the Pictorial Photographers of America, an organization for artistic photography founded by Clarence White.

Photo by Doris Ulmann
In the mid 1920s, Ulmann began her photographic expeditions throughout Appalachia. With folk musician and ballad collector, John Jacob Niles as her travel companion and assistant, Ulmann spent her final seven years documenting daily life, work, and hand crafts in Appalachia. While Ulmann captured the aesthetic of the craftsman's work-worn faces and hands, Niles collected ancient mountain ballads that were passed down from Scotch-Irish ancestors. Doris Ulmann and her Appalachian subjects were seemingly as different as night and day, and mountain people might have found many reasons to resent her. A quiet, wealthy New Yorker in fine, tailored clothes and a fancy car and chauffer wanted to photograph the quaint mountain people. Instead, they trusted and respected her, perhaps because they recognized her love and genuineness for her art as they loved their crafts. Always a sickly and frail woman, her evident pain may have made her seem more real to people who could identify with suffering.

Ulmann was asked by Allen Eaton to provide documentary photographs which he would eventually include in his 1937 book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. Working exclusively in North Carolina in 1933 and 1934 when she died, Ulmann considered Brasstown to be her home-base. While she spent much time photographing Appalachian settlement schools and regions rich with craft, such as Berea, Kentucky, and Hilton Pottery in Hickory, North Carolina, Ulmann had a special connection with Brasstown. Her photography of students and staff of the John C. Campbell Folk School and local craftspeople and musicians around Brasstown led her to form a very close friendship with Folk School founder, Olive Dame Campbell. In letters to Campbell, Ulmann confides in her as a friend and colleague and expresses her support of the Folk School. In a letter dated May 22, 1934, Ulmann writes, If you only could know...how homesick we are for you!...The more we see of other places, the greater is our appreciation of you and your wonderful school and the beautiful influence which you have on the people in your school...and in your part of the mountains.

Doris Ulmann died at the age of 52 in August of 1934. Her prolific photographs, many printed posthumously, can be found in collections nationwide. The Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection in the John C. Campbell Folk School Archives has over 200 prints, mostly of the Brasstown area.

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