Doris Ulmann

Doris Ulmann, from Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933)

No man possessed of a life-giving idea can be silent about it. No thought becomes clear, no idea completed until it is shared. The closer a person is to nature the stronger is his instinct to reveal the vision which enchants him. His mind dwells upon it and as he considers its possibilities he builds all sorts of air castles in which to house it.

Julia Peterkin, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933, p. 122)

Doris Ulmann

I’ve got grander plans in mind (I always do), but I’ve decided to share what I have thus far. It’s been a long time since I updated the hypertext chronology I was working on a year or so ago as I was trying to get my thoughts about my research together. I wanted to do a page about Doris Ulmann, but I got distracted. My scanner works much better with my Mac than it ever did with my PC, so I decided it was about time that I contributed more online material regarding the image/texts I’ve been studying. Last night, I started scanning Roll, Jordan, Roll, by Doris Ulmann and Julia Peterkin. Thanks to George H. William’s pointer to an excellent Web Album Generator, I’ve now placed these illustrations online in record time.

Roll, Jordan, Roll is an interesting book for several reasons. It presents a look at Gullah culture in North Carolina at a time when standards of representation were rapidly changing. Ulmann began her career as a pictorialist photographer, and while many of the photographs are unabashedly sentimental, the photographs and text also mark a pronounced turn towards the personal and specific—away from the racial “typing” which was prevalent in the early twentieth century. They provide a warmer look at African-American culture than another contemporaneous text I’ve scanned, Georgia Nigger. Instead of the handful of images reproduced in Spivak’s 1932 text, Ulmann and Peterkin use 71 images (in the trade edition I possess—the limited edition photogravure version has 91).

I hope to add more in the way of links and bibliography on Doris Ulmann’s work soon, but I just couldn’t resist announcing that I have placed all 71 images from Roll, Jordan, Roll online. I’m still transitioning between two servers, but for those people who have linked it the permanent home of my hypertext chronology is now at visible darkness. I’ll leave the version on this domain in place until I get more moving done. I’ve included relevant bits from Peterkin’s text in the presentation, but I must mention that none of these photographs were captioned or indexed—they are directly conjoined with the text on separate facing pages often without any overt reference to the image.

As for the title of the book, Peterkin describes its source in this way:

The familiar “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” sung at a funeral and accompanied by heart breaking wails of grief that dictate a slowly beating rhythm is a dirge that expresses mankind’s helplessness in the face of death; sung by plowmen who patiently follow their mules up and down the long cotton rows on a hot summer afternoon, it is stamped on their own resignation; at Christmas watch-night meetings which celebrate the birthnight of Jesus, who was born in a manger, poor like themselves in material things, rich like themselves in close kinship to the Creator of the Universe, the old song is shouted triumphantly, for little Jesus contrived the plan by which souls of men whose bodies die can cross Jordan’s dark stream safely and reach an eternal home where all is ease and peace. When the tied of life fills the breast of the earth in the spring and the cool sap of plants flows out in leaves and blossoms, the warm red blood in men’s veins is quickened and “Roll, Jordan, Roll” expresses exultant joy in the fresh surge of life which proves that death dissolves old forms in order to nourish new ones. (131)

Visual Century

The Visual Century

Though it may be somewhat counterintuitive to assert that the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century was the age of the image, it makes an increasing amount of sense to me. Frank Luther Mott’s monumental A History of American Magazines is rich with period sources that reflect the state of illustrated publishing at the turn of the twentieth century.

“It is confessed, declared a writer in the New York Tribune in 1885, “that no literary magazines in the world equal ours in the matter of illustration.” As events developed, the American magazine went on increasing its pictorial content in richness and variety. “Nowadays it is often the text which is illustrative, rather than the pictures,” said the Kimball Survey at the end of the century [Arthur Reed Kimball in Journal of Social Science, v. 37. p.37 1899]. The author of Bauble, one of the chapbooks, voiced a common critical opinion of the later nineties when he referred to the “picture-phobia” of the magazines: “Modern publishers,” he said, “seem to think the eye measures the depth of the popular mind.” He thought that in Munsey’s, for example, “the writers are only space fillers” [v.2. p. 83, Aug, 1896].

But all critical protests were in vain: the people liked copious illustration. There is no doubt that a considerable proportion of these pictures were mediocre or worse, represented careless and unintelligent editing, and were poorly engraved and printed. On the other hand, many of them were attractive and finely printed, and performed their illustrative function well. (v. IV 150)

Another indicator that illustration was a key selling feature in the nineteenth century is the career of Edward Charles Allen, who was Frank Munsey’s mentor as a young man. Mott has no kind words for Augusta, Maine, the center of nineteenth century pulp publishing:

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Note to Self

Note to Self

Before something gets lost, I wanted to make a short list of thesis-related things I want to write about

  • Foucault’s quadrilateral of language

  • Vico’s treatment of the four tropes

  • Eco’s essay on images as a “perfect language”

  • Hayden White’s “master tropes” of history

  • Charles Morris’s delineation of the “science of signs”

  • The historical development of “articulation” in photography

I feel like I should disclaim these short theoretical expositions that I am prone to as “thinking out loud” (or articulating stuff to the blog) rather than any hypothesis etched in stone. This is my thought-space. It helps me to see this stuff on the screen, so I put it there even if it might be incoherent to a general audience.

I try to balance it with material of a greater mass appeal, or at least greater accessibility. But as time grows short on my project, more and more time is spent trying to unravel some pretty severe and intense theoretical knots. My primary project at this time is an exploration of the relationship between photographs and their paratexts (captions or adjoining texts). The end result will be in the form of a historical survey. I have already done the majority of the research and collation on the historical texts, though I have only written about a few of them here. I have been holding back on that end of the project because I really must work out a coherent theoretical framework to hang those observations in.

The text-image combinations of the early twentieth century are fascinating to me—and I suspect that most of my readers would enjoy seeing them. But I don’t want to wax poetic about them; I want to figure out how and why they work.

The Kallikak Family (2)

“Deborah Kallikak As She Appears To-day At The Training School”

The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness

One of the things I find most fascinating about Henry Herbert Goddard’s book from 1912 is the usage of photographs as proper rather than common names. Most of the photographs published around the turn of the century were of “types” rather than people. Goddard goes to great lengths to identify each of the people in the photographs and to describe the method of study used. It is a forerunner of the case study, a now standard research method. The “thick descriptions” which accompany these texts are disturbing but not prurient when compared with the later versions from the 1930s.

Reading it reminded me of Sondra Perl’s “The Composting Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers” from 1978. Goddard’s book uses an elaborate notational system to describe all of the social dysfunctions of the Kallikak family (a pseudonym, of course—just like most modern case studies). Like modern case studies, it also draws rather far-fetched conclusions from supposedly “scientific” information. I’m sorry if my disdain for case-study research shows—I think it is the worst crock of half-cooked shite ever confused with “science.”

Goddard goes to great lengths to establish both the history and current status of one of his research subjects, Deborah Kallikak. The retouching on the photographs of Deborah is minimal, if there is any retouching at all. The photographs of the girl being “helped” by the well meaning social workers are not significantly distorted (unless you count the cheesy posing) when compared with almost every other photograph in the book. The photographs of the rest of the family show noticeable retouching around the eyes and mouths to accentuate a “dumb” appearance.

The photographs turn the girl into an interesting, “feeble-minded” version of the Gibson girl.

Continue reading “The Kallikak Family (2)”