Roll, Jordan, Roll

Photographer Doris Ulmann came from an affluent white New York City family. She took teacher training with photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School and subsequently studied psychology and law at Columbia University. She also studied photography with Clarence H. White, a founding member of the Photo-Secession movement known for teaching the Pictorialist style.

Ulmann collaborated with novelist Julia Peterkin on a book project titled Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: R.O. Ballou, 1933). The book focuses on the lives of former slaves and their descendants on a plantation in the Gullah coastal region of South Carolina. Peterkin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Scarlet Sister Mary (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), was born in South Carolina and raised by a black nursemaid who taught her the Gullah dialect. She married the heir to Lang Syne, a 2,000-acre cotton plantation, which became the setting for Roll, Jordan, Roll. Ulmann began photographing there in 1929.

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Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [People seated at church service], 1933, Photogravure

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Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Baptism], 1933, Photogravure

Roll, Jordan, Roll is titled after the spiritual written by English Methodist leader Charles Wesley in the 18th century which became well-known among slaves in the United States during the 19th century. Appropriated as a coded message for escape, by the end of the American Civil War it had become known through much of the eastern United States. In the 20th century it helped inspire the blues, and it remains a staple in gospel music.

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Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Girl standing in doorway], 1933, Photogravure

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Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Two boys riding a mule], 1933, Photogravure

Roll, Jordan, Roll was illustrated with 90 photogravure plates made from Ulmann’s large-format negatives. Although they comprise an amazing ethnographic study, today Ulmann’s Pictorialist aesthetic seems a strange choice for making documentary images. The hazy, soft-focus photographs lend a sentimental, nostalgic impression that belies the underlying exploitative history of her subjects.

This beautiful book was also featured on the museum’s Open Vaults tumblr page in honor of Black History Month. Check out more hidden treasure every week on tumblr.