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About (A) Face

“A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason 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." – Doris Ulmann, American photographer

Doris Ulmann with a camera. 1934. University of Kentucky Libraries. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction. Laborer’s hands. 1925. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-ppmsca-03183 (digital file from original); Call No.: LC-C33- 36 [item] [P&P]

The daughter of a Jewish textile industrialist, Doris Ulmann was raised on New York City’s fashionable Upper West Side. In 1923, after ending a failed marriage to Charles Jaeger, an orthopedic surgeon and fellow photographer, she moved to an apartment at 1000 Park Ave., where she lived until the end of her life. Ulmann enrolled at Columbia University and the Clarence White School of Photography, which attracted such notable photographers as Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange.  She was among the founding members of the Pictorial Photographers of America, a group that attempted to make pictures that were expressive, artistic and beautiful. Through her interest in the Ethical Culture Society, which advocated that cultural differences contribute to a democratic society, Ulmann began looking at her photographic subjects not as individuals, but as universal cultural types.

Most known for her photography of the mountain peoples of Appalachia and the Gullahs of the Sea Islands, Ulmann’s early work included a series of portraits of prominent intellectuals, artists and writers including William Butler Yeats, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson and Lillian Gish.

Ulmann's equipment was somewhat cumbersome and old-fashioned for the early 20th century. She most often used a 6½ x 8½ inch, tripod-mounted view camera, although the lightweight, hand-held camera was more prevalent, and she produced soft-focus platinum prints. The muted, warm tonality of the platinum image was a gentle complement to her respectful, sympathetic portrayals of subjects whose lives were different from her own.

During her lifetime, Ulmann created portrait portfolios of medical doctors (1919 and 1922), editors (1925), and African Americans in the volume “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (1933).  She mounted a solo exhibition of her work at the Library of Congress only months before she died.  Most of her Appalachian portraits were published posthumously with many printed from some of the 10,000 glass plates left after her death in 1934.

The Library purchased 44 images directly from Ulmann a few months before her death. The Ulmann Foundation donated an additional 110 prints soon after Ulmann died. A selection of the images, along with a list of resources and biographical information, is available in a collection overview from the Prints and Photographs Division.