Sunday, July 8, 2018

Doris Ulmann at the Ogden Museum

A small and rather frail woman, Doris Ulmann must have cut a strange figure as she trudged across remote mountains like a waif in the shadow of her huge camera and tripod. One of America's pioneer female photographers, she was born into New York's latter 19th century cultural elite where she gained early fame for her portraits of luminaries like Albert Einstein and William Butler Yeats. Over time, she became almost obsessively focused on the reclusive inhabitants of America's hinterlands, and most of the works in this Ogden expo are views of the lifestyles she encountered in rural Appalachian enclaves, and among the Gullah community of South Carolina's Sea Islands, places where many of the people she met in the 1930s appeared amazingly unchanged from their forebears in previous centuries.

Although the Gullah people, descendants of slaves who kept their own language, share similarities with other rural black communities, the lack of any hint of modern life gives her Roll Jordan Roll series a mysterious, archaic quality. Her Baptism – Group of Four view of a preacher and his congregants all draped in white, above, is an ebony and ivory evocation of a life changing religious ritual met with the same dignified resolve that characterizes Ulmann's best portraits – a quality seen even in Chaingang, right, a group of convicts in stripes digging ditches, or in a fisherman in overalls holding his net. Although African ethnicity predominates, there is something as deeply American about these images as old Stephen Foster songs.

Americana is also pervasive in many of Ulmann's photographs of Appalachian lifestyles, especially in her views of rural craftspersons posing with their tools. Even so, anyone who grew up associating Appalachia with popular 20th century “hillbilly" stereotypes might be shocked by Ulmann's otherworldly Woman With Peaked Hat, or by Child with Parents Dancing, right. Here the rakish father, and the mother covered in concealing fabrics, might pass for “Romanian gypsies” or “Albanian Muslims.” Such images convey the inescapable otherness that lies at the core of American identity, even among people who now sometimes claim to be the only “real Americans.” ~Bookhardt / From the Highlands to the Lowlands: Photographs by Doris Ulmann, Through Sept. 16, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.