New York

Doris Ulmann

Witkin Gallery

In contrast, it is the people who become the icons in Doris Ulmann’s platinum prints and gravures. Her main subjects are poor Southerners. She presents the time-worn faces of Appalachian craftsmen and women, the simple dignity of the blacks of the Gullah region of South Carolina. Reading Gene Thornton’s review in the Sunday Times I thought again about the soft-focus pictorialism of these images. Does it matter that these photos were taken in the late ’20s and early ’30s, at a time when the modernist impulse was toward a sharp-focus on straight reality? True, a few of Ulmann’s shots look pretentiously staged as when she dresses up girls in their grandmothers’ clothes and poses them at spinning wheels. But more often, the picturesqueness is a possibility within the everyday. A woman leaning against a picket fence, another framed in an open window. Certainly the grainy focus enhances the romanticism of Ulmann’s carefully selected poses. However, in many of the later photos the blur is only in the background. The people themselves stand out as individuals as well as symbols. Furthermore, as Thornton points out, the pictorialism so evident in Ulmann’s work is implicit in much of modernists’, including Strand’s, imagery. So I wonder if this categorizing isn’t a misnomer. By what standards does one evaluate photography? Do notions of artistic progression apply when the avowed purpose is social documentation? Or does one respond to the photographs in terms of their effectiveness as what they are? As a portrait of a people through one woman’s eyes.

Susan Heinemann