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Doris Ulmann (1882-1934)

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Photographer Doris Ulmann with a camera
Doris Ulmann with a camera
University of Kentucky Libraries

Doris Ulmann might be surprised to learn that it has taken so long to be acknowledged as a photojournalist. As a student of Clarence H. White, she would have been encouraged to publish her photographs in books and magazines and during the last decade of her life, she made at least some of her photographs for that express purpose. She did not need to earn a living but she evidently felt compelled to make a life for herself, which she did through photography.

Trained as an art photographer in the 1910s, Ulmann invited celebrities to her apartment at 1000 Park Avenue in New York City to discuss their work and to pose for her camera. A secular humanist, she ultimately worked with Progressive and Social Gospel activists and feminists using her camera to provide socially meaningful images of "the folk," people outside the rapidly industrializing American mainstream. These included Native Americans, African Americans, craftsmen, musicians, and members of religious communities, as seen in her Appalachian and Sea Island photographs.

Publication of Ulmann's photographs in magazines were part of the transition from magazines illustrated with drawings to those with photographs, and, in the 1930s, to picture magazines like Life (1936) and Look (1937). Her photographs helped change the way we perceive and therefore represent the people she photographed, from quaint, picturesque peasants to individuals with dignity and purpose in the modern world.

The Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress has more than 160 platinum prints by Ulmann and continues to acquire her work. The images, which span her whole career from 1915 to 1934, include first edition sets of The Faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York: Twenty-four Portraits (1919), A Book of Portraits of the Faculty of the Medical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (1922), and A Portrait Gallery of American Editors (1925). The Prints and Photographs Division also houses a general reference copy of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) while the Rare Book Division maintains three limited edition copies, including one in the Goudy Collection and another in the Rosenwald Collection with a plate signed by Doris Ulmann laid in.

The Library purchased forty-four images directly from Ulmann a few months before her death. The Ulmann Foundation donated an additional 110 prints soon after Ulmann died.

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  March 25, 2022
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