Doris Ulmann’s portrait of Brother William Anderson

A number of photographers are well known to Shaker scholars for their portraits of Shaker brothers and sisters and views of Shaker villages. Very few of these photographers, however, are well known among those who study the history of photography.

One exception is Doris Ulmann. In the late 1920s Ulmann, an amateur photographer from New York City, sought out the Shakers of New Lebanon in her quest to record American “types” – people in their everyday costume doing their everyday jobs. Ulmann had been well educated at the Ethical Culture School and Columbia University; was well married to physician and amateur photographer Charles Jaeger; was well off, with a house on Park Avenue, two cooks, a dressmaker, nurses, and a chauffeur; and was well trained as a photographer, studying with Clarence H. White at Columbia and and then as one of his first students when he opened his own school of photography. Ulmann raged against the modern tools of photography – light meters, roll film, and miniature cameras. Instead she worked exclusively with large glass plate view cameras with lens caps rather than shutters – occasionally using pin-hole plates, declaring she was her own light meter. This would have be all well and good had it not been for the fact that these are the tools of the studio photographer and Ulmann increasingly sought her subjects outside the studio.

Ulmann was small of frame and suffered from a digestive disorder that eventually took her life at the age of 52. Although her first sitters were doctors, writers, and members of the intellectual and creative aristocracy, in 1925 Clarence White died, Ulmann divorced, and she took to the road with her camera to make portraits of people in their natural surroundings. She is best known for her work photographing the Appalachians of western North Carolina, the Gullah Islanders, Dunkards, Mennonites, and in 1926 and 1927, some Shakers at the Second and South Families at Mount Lebanon. How she came to seek out the Shakers is unclear; while in Columbia County in the late 1920s, however, she also did several portraits of Edna St. Vincent Millay at her home in Austerlitz, New York. It is a chicken-or-egg kind of question as to whether the Shakers brought her to Millay or vice versa.

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Photograph, Doris Ulmann [Elder William Anderson], South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1926. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6446.1.

In the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, a photograph of Brother William Anderson, done in his 86th year, was made by Doris Ulmann. She photographed Anderson several times, apparently in two separate years: 1926 and 1927.

The Museum’s copy of her 1926 photograph of Anderson was apparently a gift from her to him. It is signed on the backing mat by Ulmann and on the window mat, in Anderson’s hand, is written, “William Anderson, 86 Years Young.”  Ulmann routinely gave her sitters copies of their portraits. The photograph of Anderson in the Museum’s collection was given to the Museum by Thomas E. Kelly of Lenox, Massachusetts. Kelly received the photograph directly from William Anderson. In the photograph Anderson is wearing a straw hat and holding a large book. In another version of the photograph Anderson appears in profile with his hat off and his hands on the open book. Still a third version of the photograph in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, shows Anderson facing the camera with his hands apart on the open book with his hat hanging in the background.

William Anderson was born in New York City on February 20, 1841. William’s father, Samuel, left his wife and children to go Canada. William and his younger sister, Martha Jane Anderson, came to the North Family at Mount Lebanon in 1855. Martha remained with the North Family her entire life while William moved to the East Family in 1866 and when that family closed in 1872, he moved to the Church Family, where he had charge of the seed business for twelve years. In 1884 he became a member of the South Family, where he remained until his death in 1930. Brother William managed the Shakers’ chair manufacturing and made a specialty on the Shaker farm of growing potatoes to sell in the local markets. Williams served as the Family Elder. He was known for his strong bass voice at Shaker meetings even though as a child he has suffered an accident that left his hearing imperfect and, in fact, in his later years nearly was totally deaf. As described in a newspaper obituary, “With his long white hair reaching in curls almost to his shoulders, his whiskers, his Shaker hat and long coat, in style in the ‘70s, he was a veritable patriarch of old.” That is certainly the image of Elder William that Ulmann was able to capture for us.

 

 

 

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