Doris Ulmann, Platinum Prints: Appalachian & African American Portraits @Keith De Lellis

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are vintage platinum prints (with the exception of 1 vintage oil print), made between c1920 and 1934. Physical sizes are generally 8×6 or reverse. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When aesthetic styles change in art, there is often a strong undercurrent of reaction and response actually taking place, where the new overtly separates itself from the old. But when the crisp, sharp-eyed seeing of photographic Modernism arrived on the scene in the 1920s, its proponents went further than simply advocating a fundamentally new approach to picture making.

In their vehement defense of their purposefully unadorned images, the Modernists went out of their way to systematically undermine (some might say mock) the soft-focus, painting-like Pictorialism that had come before, so much so that their arguments were not far from a wholesale effort to fully discredit the prior thinking. It wasn’t just that the new way was intrinsically better in their minds, it was that the old way was fundamentally flawed and misguided, almost an insult to the essence of the medium itself. And as a result of this onslaught, the romantic, texture-rich nuances of Pictorialism quickly lost favor, staying largely marginalized until the resurgence of interest in hand-crafted processes in the early 21st century.

This show offers the rare opportunity to examine a deep selection of Doris Ulmann’s Pictorialist portraiture and to consider how her superlative images fit into the aesthetic back-and-forth of the period. And if we simply examine at the composition of Ulmann’s portraits from Appalachia (in addition to the handful of portraits of African-Americans that have been included here as well), we might very well conclude that she had been influenced by the early work of August Sander.

Ulmann’s sitters are consistently seen in waist-up and three-quarter poses, generally in their homes or places of work, and sometimes holding an important tool or implement, from a fiddle or an oxen yoke to an in-progress quilt or a shoe being repaired. Seen together, her portraits are a broad taxonomy of rural Appalachian life in the 1920s and 1930s, each occupation and position in society given honest attention and authentic interest. She shows us the various workers in the community (the miners, farmers, apple pickers, preachers, and gentlemen), but also spends time with other professions and pursuits (the musicians, soothsayers, wood carvers, and basket weavers). Housewives and elderly folk are also seen with care, filling out her view of the community with the fullness and balance of an anthropologist.

But the similarities to Sander for the most part end there. The first difference is found in the directness of the interaction. While Sander encouraged nearly every sitter to look directly into the lens, creating portraits that feel immediate in their blunt eye-to-eye communication with the viewer, Ulmann’s subjects often look out of the frame to the side, making them appear wistful, or noble, or even romantic (especially when the highlights hit just so). This one small change in approach leads Ulmann’s residents to feel like types rather than individuals, sympathetic approximations rather than specifics. A similar comparison can be made with Walker Evans’ mid-1930s portraits from Alabama – even though the rural Southern subject matter is comparable to Ulmann’s, the picture making styles (and resulting emotional ranges) are markedly different.

The second difference from Sander comes in look and feel – Ulmann’s use of the lush platinum printing process further pushes her images back toward Pictorialism. The tones in these intimate prints are wonderfully muted and tactile – the beards, cotton shirts, rough hewn boards, woven hats, and wrinkled skin each texturally detailed but quietly softened. She uses much less artful blur than her predecessors, so in many ways, her portraits can be seen as transitional, adding a slice of Modernist clarity to the warm embrace of platinum. Her pictures capture life in Appalachia with understated, hard-working honor, with a dash of sepia-toned nostalgia added in for good measure.

Pictorialism doesn’t get shown particularly often in galleries and museums in New York these days, making this solid exhibit that much more of an outlier. But even if their style is a bit out of fashion, Ulmann’s portraits are undeniably well made and engaging, bringing us face-to-face with Depression-era rural Americans who dug the coal and tilled the fields. Their power in the pictures comes from their plain-spoken sincerity, where Ulmann saw modest, overlooked lives with consistent openness and respect.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $6000. Ulmann’s work is intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between roughly $1000 to $44000. Ulmann’s first edition photobook Roll, Jordan, Roll is also a consistent seller, with the 90 print portfolio version finding buyers as high as roughly $58000.

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