In a sentimental mood

“. . . far away, peaceful places where you can throw off your fears and inhibitions, and bathe in the sea and the sun as you please” – In a Blue Moon, Nell Dorr 1939  Dorr_Nell_blueMoon003

 

 

Summer is family time.  I feel drawn to nature. It is great to be outside and exploring the wonders of critters and creatures whilst being bathed in the summer light.  Children – mine, yours, and anybody’s – love the freedom of summer.  This is the time to switch off, to rest and recuperate. The summer also makes me think of family photographs, soft-focus effects, nostalgia and sentimental subject matter. If you combine all that with the idea of recharging your idealism then you might arrive at the work of Nell Dorr. Idealism in her work is strong and sentimentality unabashed.

“That life shall have meaning, not alone our own life and death, but equally sacred, that of all mankind you have to see it. Feel it.  Somehow it will come through. Life is greater than you know.  It is yours for the taking, this picture, not for the making.  Come close to it. Love it. Give it room to be. Learn to witness and wait.  The more still, the more open, the more will come” – Nell Dorr

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Margaretta Mitchel in 1981 said of Dorr, “She is a story teller. The photography of Nell Dorr is an impressionistic journal of a woman’s inner journey, of her many aspects and archetypes: child, maiden, bride, mother, matriarch, and muse. She does not confront her subject with her camera; she reveals it. Her pictures are windows onto a world of dreams and memories.  For Nell Dorr, life itself is the work of art, photography, the means of revealing Life.”

In her books she created great visual poetry, with waves of meaning and light. Her books are about essences and escaping the turmoil of the world. Nell Dorr wanted to get away from people and get in touch with the earth, the sea, and the sky. Her images are from another time – an idyllic rural pastoral life – but they are also timeless and removed from society itself.  When I first saw Nell Dorr’s books in the library I was struck by the beauty of them as they are all excellently reproduced in truly exquisite photogravure. I was also intrigued by her ability to be profound and meaningful with subject matter, which especially to our more modern and jaded taste, could easily come across as being really cheesy.

 

“It’s only once in a blue moon that days like these can happen but, when they do, they add a new dimension to the years that follow.” – Opening text of In a blue moon by Nell Dorr.

In a blue moon combines dream-like images of nude women with close-up and abstracted images of flowers. The narrative of this photo-novella is the transition into adulthood.  The effect of this book is that something that has so much potential to be lame – pictures of girls, pictures of flowers, girls and flowers and girls with flowers in their hair – actually comes across as being quite profound and unashamedly beautiful.  Nell Dorr photographed with a Rollei camera only ever using available natural light.  The simplicity of her approach did not necessarily mean simplicity in the results that she achieved. Her imagery is filled with amazing abstract constructions and her portraits have an almost primal quality.  Her photographs are the autobiographical work of a strong and sensitive woman who created an internal place where beauty and truth could still flourish.

 

I don’t really understand why Nell Dorr remains out of the mainstream of photographic history.  Perhaps her work is perceived as being too domestic or too sentimental? But have you ever seen such passionate and powerful depictions of children and family life? Dorr’s visual sequences are addressing the fundamentals of family in a dream like symbolism. She is courageous in her exploration of intimacy. The publication Mother and Child exemplifies that commitment to authenticity and was originally produced after the death of her daughter in 1954. She directly addresses the intimate and messy physical bonds between mother and child. She is defending the spiritual against the crass material world. Something that I think we will always continue to need. One cannot help but to be moved by this work of love. I think a reevaluation of her images has long been over due.

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“I am a baker of bread. I want to nourish people with my pictures. I use photography like language, to say things. I speak from my life” – Nell Dorr

Nell Dorr Timeline

  • 1893 Nell Dorr was born Virginia Nell Becker in Cleveland, Ohio, the daughter of Minnie and John Jacob Becker, a photographer.
  • 1900 the family moved to Massillon, Ohio, where Becker had a studio. Her photographer father John Jacob Becker began teaching her photography, giving her a pinhole camera and showing her how to mix chemicals.
  • 1910 Nell is married at age seventeen to her childhood sweetheart Thomas Koons; they had three daughters, Virginia (Win), Elizabeth (Betty or Bets), and Barbara (Barby)
  • 1923 Nell Dorr and her young family move to Florida.
  • 1927 Dorr returned to photography in order to support her family, after her husband lost money and his livelihood in real estate in the crash of 1926. She opened a studio, specialized in portraits of men, and made personal work of children, nudes, and flowers.
  • 1931 she divorces her husband Thomas Koons.
  • 1932 she moves to New York and establishes a portrait studio on East 59th Street
  • 1932 She had a one person exhibition of photomurals at the Merle Sterner Gallery in New York.
  • 1933 Mangroves a softbound portfolio of her photographs was self-published in a limited edition, under her first married name, Nell Koons. It comprises two of her poems and fifteen tipped-in halftones of flowers and nude girls and women, often perched in trees.
  • 1934 Nell had a one person show “Photographic Etudes” at the Grand Central Art Gallery.
  • 1934 She exhibited photographs from her Famous Men Series at the Delphic Gallery.
  • 1934 Nell remarries Dr. John Van Nostrand Dorr, who would become an internationally known scientist and inventor.
  • 1934 she had her work shown in Paris.
  • 1939 G. P. Putnam’s Sons issued In a Blue Moon, a small hardcover made up of many of the same images from Mangroves but printed in photogravure.
  • 1940-1947 Nell Dorr began working on a 16mm film about the modern Kurt Graff Ballet, The Singing Earth. She completed the film in 1947.
  • 1949 Nell Dorr made the 16mm sound film Through the Dorr Way, which documented the work of the Dorr Oliver Company.
  • 1954 The Dorr Foundation helped publish the first edition of Mother and Child. The foundation promoted the book as a testament of solid values of the American family and donated nearly 1,000 copies to the U.S. Information Agency.
  • 1955 four of Nell Dorr’s pieces are shown at the Museum of Modern Art’s The Family of Man exhibition
  • 1958 she makes the 16mm film The Golden Key, which staged a wedding of antique dolls owned by her good friend Tasha Tudor.
  • 1962 Dorr’s impressionistic images of the inhabitants of a small Mexican village were published in The Bare Feet.
  • 1962 John Dorr died at the age of 90. Nell Dorr resided for the remainder of her life at Villa Serena in Washington, Connecticut.
  • 1964-65 Dorr’s photographs were exhibited around the country in a solo exhibition, Mother and Child at the Washington Art Association, Washington, Connecticut, October 3 –17. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, December 1964 – January 1965.
  • 1968 with the New York Graphic Society she publishes Of Night and Day, representing Dorr’s “photographic essay on man’s quest for the meaning of life” (according to the dust jacket). This title intersperses lines from Henry David Thoreau and other writers with light abstractions that are unusually modernist and ethereal for her.
  • 1972 second edition of Mother and Child published
  • 1973 Nell Dorr exhibition at the Battle Creek Civic Art Center, in April.
  • 1975 Nell Dorr participated in a group exhibition Women of Photography: An Historical Survey, San Francisco Museum of Art.
  • 1975 Life Dance was published a collaboration with her friend Covington Hardee.
  • 1976 Nell Dorr has a one person exhibition at Shado Gallery, Portland, Oregon.
  • 1981 Nell Dorr has a one person exhibition of photographs from the 1930s at the Massillon Museum, Massillon, Ohio.
  • 1988 Nell Dorr dies at her home in Washington, Connecticut.

Nell Dorr Bibliography

In a blue moon / Nell Dorr ; lettering by George A. DuBerg.
New York : G.P. Putnams’ Sons, 1939.

R TR674.D67 1939

Mother and child / Nell Dorr.
New York, Harper, 1954

Mother and child / Nell Dorr.
Second edition from 1972 -  San Francisco, Scrimshaw Press.
[Larger size and with more pages than the 1954 edition].
TR686.C5 .D67 1972

The bare feet / Nell Dorr
Greenwich, Conn., : New York Graphic Society, 1962
R TR790.M6 .D67 1962

Of night and day / Nell Dorr
Greenwich, Conn., New York Graphic Society, 1968.
TR654. D67 1968

Life dance /  Nell Dorr and Covington Hardee
Allendale, N.J. :  Alleluia Press, 1975.

R TR681.F28 .D67 1975

Dorr_Barby, Bet, Nell and Win_1930

Photographs from the Nell Dorr estate are part of the photography collection at The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas. http://www.cartermuseum.org/

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About matthew carson

Associate librarian & Archivist at the International Center of Photography
This entry was posted in Unpacking the collection and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In a sentimental mood

  1. emjl7 says:

    hi matthew, great article, and glad to know works of Dorr.. i really liked:

    “..The simplicity of her approach did not necessarily mean simplicity in the results that she achieved..”

    it says a lot .. emiliano

    by side, I saw in current ‘Foam Talen’t issue that Daisuke Yokata has been selected..who we talked a little after you included him in your annual ICPLBlog review

  2. Pingback: Salubrious Searches | Contemporaneous Extension

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