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Doris Ulmann came from a wealthy New York family and was financially independent. She began studying photography in 1907 while taking courses in law and psychology at Columbia University. She also studied photography with Clarence White, the director of an influential school of photography in New York. White advocated a pictorialist approach to photography, one of its characteristics being mood and atmosphere created by the play of light and shadow and the use of a soft-focus portrait lens. From 1918 onward, Ulmann made portraits of well-known figures in American artistic and literary circles that were published in deluxe books and in the bulletins of the Pictorial Photographers of America, of which she was a member. By the late 1920s Ulmann's work became more documentary in style, reflecting her new interest in recording vanishing American subcultures, such as those of the Mennonites and Shakers. In 1929 she began to work with the writer Julia Peterkin on an illustrated book, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933), documenting the customs, folk life, and religious traditions of the Gullah, African Americans who lived on the plantations and in the fishing villages of South Carolina and Georgia.