At just 15 photos, Beyond Pictorialism: The Photography of Doris Ulmann at Over-the-Rhine’s designsmith gallery is one of the largest exhibitions mounted in the past 15 years of this little-known photographer’s work. The exhibition reveals Ulmann’s historical and aesthetic significance through 12 portraits and three architectural photographs and demonstrates how she bridged two important photographic movements. Most of all, it provides a wonderful introduction to an underrepresented artist.
Ulmann was trained as a pictorialist in the early 20th century. The pictorialists strove to elevate photography to the status of high art by creating photographic images that emulated paintings. Great examples of the hallmarks of pictorialism — soft focus, subtle contrasts and impressionistic printing methods — can be seen in the exhibition. In the 1920s and ’30s, Ulmann set out on long expeditions to photograph what she referred to as “vanishing types.” The craftspeople of Appalachia, the African-American Gullah culture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, the Pennsylvania Dutch and other rural peoples became her favorite subjects. Of the approximately 10,000 platinum prints Ulmann made, she produced around 150 one-of-a-kind oil pigment prints, three of which are on display in the show. Two photos of the same subject — an elegant building faade — allow viewers to compare the different effects of platinum versus oil pigment prints. I yearned for these to be hung side by side so my eyes could bounce back and forth to compare techniques. Instead they flank the exhibition, serving as parenthesis around the heart of Ulmann’s work — her sensitive, captivating portraits of rural Americans. Noon-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Nov. 22.
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