Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection
Language of Materials
The collection consists of ca. 3000 photographic prints, primarily platinum but some photogravure. Typical portrait subjects include prominent artists, authors, the Columbia University medical faculty, Johns Hopkins University medical faculty, and American editors. There are also examples of some of her best-known African-American and Appalachian photographs. Although many of the images are unidentified, they are the largest known body of prints made by Ulmann herself
Doris Ulmann was a prolific and accomplished photographer who was born in New York in 1882. She lived and worked there until her death in 1934 at the age of 52. Ulmann produced compelling images of rural life in the Southeastern United States, as well as portraits of the prominent American authors, artists, actors, editors, and physicians of her time. Ulmann's photographs were widely published in periodicals and biographical compilations during her lifetime. Three limited-edition portrait books were illustrated by Ulmann, featuring composed images in urban professional settings: The Faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1919); A Book of Portraits of the Faculty of the Medical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1922); and A Portrait Gallery of American Editors (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1925). But Ulmann's artistic reputation today rests largely on her work in Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Robert O. Ballou, 1933), which contained essays on the American South by her friend and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Julia Peterkin, and "photographic studies" by Ulmann. Many of the photographs were made on Peterkin's husband's family farm in South Carolina, which employed over 300 African-American farmworkers.
Philip Walker Jacobs' book The Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann (University Press of Kentucky, 2001) provides the most recent and comprehensive account of Ulmann's personal and professional worlds. In his biography, Jacobs shapes Ulmann's life through previously unknown or unpublished correspondence and public records. Prior to Jacobs' book, little factual information was known about Ulmann, and the source of much of that was her assistant, John Jacob Niles. In addition to providing new information about Ulmann's early life and career, Jacobs goes to great length to document Ulmann's complex relationship with Niles, who worked for her for the last two years of her life and was at her bedside when she died. Among other details, Jacobs notes that various changes to Ulmann's will, made while Niles was her assistant, resulted in a legal dispute between Niles and Ulmann's sister and brother-in-law, Henry and Edna Necarsulmer, after her death.
An account of the disposition of Ulmann's photographs and negatives is carefully detailed in Jacobs' text and many appendices, which provide several annotated lists for easy reference, including: A Selective List of Public and Private Collections Containing Photographs, Books, and Archives By and About Doris Ulmann; A List of Doris Ulmann's Exhibitions; Published Photographs; The Medium, Edition, Identification, and Rarity of Doris Ulmann's Photographs; A Selective Index of Doris Ulmann's Photographic Subjects; and a Bibliography.
Photographs were assigned consecutive numbers upon their arrival at the Society. They are filed by number and described in the container list.
Scope and Contents Note
The Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection spans the period from ca. 1910-1934 and contains 3,016 photographs and a few miscellaneous items.
Each photograph in the Doris Ulmann collection was assigned a consecutive number that corresponds to the order in which the photographs were found upon their arrival at the Society. The number is written in pencil on the front of the mat, backing, or print. Although some of the subjects are grouped together numerically, there are not enough to suggest anything other than a random arrangement previous to their arrival. The photographs were kept in number order during processing, and a database created to fully describe each photograph. The descriptive information in the database has been migrated into the container list of this finding aid.
This collection contains Ullman's portraits of rural residents of Appalachia and the Southeastern United States, including Native Americans, African Americans, craftsmen, musicians, and members of religious communities. Also included are portraits of prominent American authors, artists, actors, editors, and physicians of her time.
Ulmann did not identify any of her portrait subjects on the works themselves, and this collection contains none of her original records or notes to aid in identification. Approximately one-third of the sitters were identified when the collection was processed in 2002-03. Identified sitters include Sherwood Anderson, Calvin Coolidge, Esther Forbes, Martha Graham, Sinclair Lewis, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. There are often multiple images of the same subject, as indicated in the container list.
Of particular interest are the images published in Roll, Jordan, Roll, most of which are held in the collection. The book grew out of a visit Ulman made to 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 to document, 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. Ulman's images provide an exquisite visual record of former African-American slaves and their descendents as they appeared almost seventy years after the Emancipation Proclamation on this particular South Carolina plantation. However, seen in the context of what is today more generally known about the conditions of slavery, some of the images may appear highly romanticized.
The great majority of the photographs are platinum prints, though there are also some oil pigment prints. It is presumed that Ulmann herself printed the original photographs in the collection, most of which are in their original mats, and many of which are signed and dated. The mats are in the standard format of the Clarence White School, where Ulmann had studied, and were made under her direction if not actually by her.
Some of the images in the collection are photogravure prints that are either printer's proofs or have been cut from the four previously mentioned published limited edition books. These can be identified in the database by searching the word "gravure" in the 'Notes' field.
Of the 3,016 images in the collection, 922 are signed by Ulmann. Of those, 646 are signed "Doris Ulmann," 272 are signed "Doris U. Jaeger," and four are signed "Doris Jaeger." Five of the images signed Doris Ulmann (numbers 122, 207, 208, 210, 212) had been signed "Doris U. Jaeger," which she erased and reinscribed "Doris Ulmann." Charles H. Jaeger was Ulmann's husband, fellow-photo-enthusiast, and a physician who was a Columbia University faculty member. The couple appears to have separated by November 1920; one year later Ulmann was exhibiting photographs under her maiden name. The Ulmann database identifies specific image numbers with signatures and various monograms, another way Ulmann signed her prints.
Ulmann dated 237 of the photographs that she signed between 1916 and 1919. All but two have the "Doris U. Jaeger" signature, with the date appearing as a full year or abbreviated: 1919 or '19, for example. Exceptions are images 212 and 2803, which have variant signatures. Again, dated images can be identified through the database.
The platinum prints in the collection are two sizes, each of which she presented differently. The smaller of the two are trimmed to 4.625 by 6.5 inches. The prints are glued to a tissue backing, the backing is glued to a light gray paperboard mount, and the mount and mat hinged together with cloth tape. The print floats inside a window that is cut to 5.625 by 7.5 inches. When signed, her signature appears in pencil on the tissue below the print on the right side.
The larger size prints are trimmed to 6 by 8 inches. The mat and mount are of the same off-white paperboard. The prints are glued to the mount and float inside a window that is cut to 6.5 x 8.5 inches. Signatures on these prints appear directly on the mount, in pencil below the photograph on the right side.
The oil pigment photographic images are 6 by 8 inches and the paper is not trimmed. They are mounted and matted, and, if signed, are inscribed like the platinum prints of this size.
The overall dimension of the matted photographs is 11.25 by 14.25 inches.
To assist in research, photocopies were made of the photographs, and have been grouped into seven general subject categories for easy patron browsing and visual reference. The seven major subject categories are: Men; Women; Children; Groups (two or more); Landscapes; Still Lifes; and Other. The photocopies are arranged under these seven categories.
MEN, as subjects, are by far the largest category in the entire Ulmann collection. They include adult men ranging in age from their twenties to very old. When the "subset" descriptions are applied to this general category, the following "types" appear.
MEN, Urban, are formal studio portraits of sophisticated, upper and middle class men and professionals, including authors, editors, actors, artists, and musicians, with most images made from the waist-up. Most are pictured in the businessman's or gentlemen's "uniform" of the time: a jacket, vest, and tie. Some wear an artistic smock or laboratory coat. The clothing styles range from very formal-looking early twentieth-century suits to more modern, relaxed outfits common in the late 1920s. Younger men in this later time period are shown in rolled-up shirtsleeves and open collars. The subjects sometimes hold pens or books, musical instruments, or stand next to laboratory furniture or painting easels, giving a clue as to their profession. Lighted cigarettes seem to have been a favorite prop. Urban, African American MEN are very few in number, the writer James Weldon Johnson, being one. There are also several unidentified and important-looking African men in what appear to be traditional robes.
MEN, Country (primarily Caucasian), and MEN, Country, African American, are photographed in rural outdoor settings. Good examples are photographs numbered 2684 through 2711, and 2769 through 2800. Farmers, blacksmiths, dockworkers, fishermen, carpenters, among others, are shown with the tools of their trades. The men look as if they just came in from the field, their clothes and faces covered in dust. Or, they can be wearing clean, pressed jackets, shits, and ties, as of ready for church or company. Whether clean or dusty, the clothes and hats are tattered and well-worn, the jackets and shirts have numerous patches. Several images are of African American MEN in "chain gangs," working in groups along a roadside wearing striped prison uniforms and leg chains; Caucasian guards with rifles stand at the side. Regardless of what the men wear or what they are doing, as captured through Ulmann's lens, these "types" have great dignity and character.
WOMEN is the second largest category, although it is less than twenty percent of the size of the MEN category. They include adult women ranging in age from their twenties to very old. When the "subset" descriptions are applied, the following "types" emerge.
WOMEN, Urban (primarily Caucasian) and WOMEN, Urban, African American are formal studio portraits of sophisticated upper and middle class women and professionals, including editors, authors, artists, actresses, and musicians. They display a wide range of costume, jewelry, and hairstyles from early twentieth-century formal gowns to the flapper-style and more modern, comfortable-looking dresses of the late 1920's. These later styles include man-tailored suits as well as artistic, embroidered gowns and robes; this latter group includes several portraits of Bertha Goudy, type designer and co-proprietor of the Village Press.
WOMEN, Country, and WOMEN, Country, African American correspond to descriptions, above, of Country MEN. The women wear housedresses and aprons or remove their aprons when dressed for company or church, adding a hat. There is an especially notable set of images of young women and girls, grouped in numbers 818 through 1013 (among others.) African American WOMEN are also shown working outside of the home, for instance, at tables bundling asparagus, or in the asparagus or cotton fields.
Types for CHILDREN are as follows.
CHILDREN, Urban, are Caucasian. Some of these children are identified, including Evelyn Necarsulmer (born 1908, the only child of Ulmann's only sibling), and Ethel Durant, the daughter of historian Will Durant.
CHILDREN, Country or CHILDREN, African American are some of Ulmann's more notably beautiful and sensitive images. She photographed groups simply posed for the camera, or seen at a swimming hole or at a wagon with books. Some were captured with their grandparents or riding in a car. Good examples of this genre appear in images 1600 through 1640, among others
GROUPS (two or more) includes portraits that are of two or more people, and were thus impossible to include in the other categories because most of the groups are combinations of MEN, WOMEN, or CHILDREN. Many are children, as noted above. There are two other prominent subsets of GROUPS. One is Country couples, presumably husbands and wives, (images numbered 2475 through 2725, among others), and are mostly elderly people with expressive faces reflecting lives of poverty and years of hard work. The second group are photographs of Martha Graham and her troupe, the Martha Graham Dancers, captured at work in stage costumes and posed as if in the middle of a dance piece.
LANDSCAPES: a subject was considered a landscape if the overall emphasis was an outside environment, usually with a horizon line. Some landscapes include people, such as a farmer pushing a plow behind a horse, for example, but the landscape is the primary subject, rather than the person.
STILL LIFES: a subject was considered a still life when it focused on inanimate objects or parts of the human figure (hands, for instance). In some instances, small courtyards or doorways were also classified as still lifes because the content, composition, and light suggested something more intimate than a landscape
OTHER: a few miscellaneous items in the collection include what appear to be copied photographs of Ulmann family photographs, such as a small image of a Civil War era soldier. In addition, there are a number of empty mats that were signed by the editors who are photographed in the 1925 American Editors book. The fate of the missing photographs is unknown. However, it is possible these images were sent to an engraver when the book was printed
Open to qualified researchers.
Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to twenty exposures of stable, unbound material per day. See guidelines in Print Room for details.
Access to Collection
Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit www.nyhistory.org/library/visit.
Taking images of documents from the library collections for reference purposes by using hand-held cameras and in accordance with the library's photography guidelines is encouraged. As an alternative, patrons may request up to 20 images per day from staff.
Application to use images from this collection for publication should be made in writing to: Department of Rights and Reproductions, The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194, firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282.
Copyrights and other proprietary rights may subsist in individuals and entities other than the New-York Historical Society, in which case the patron is responsible for securing permission from those parties. For fuller information about rights and reproductions from N-YHS visit: https://www.nyhistory.org/about/rights-reproductions
Preferred Citation Note
This collection should be cited as Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection, PR 072, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.
Location of Materials
Gift of the Doris Ulmann Foundation, 1954.