An Artist Evolves
Working as a professional portrait photographer in the 1920s and 1930s, Dorr used her craft to support her young family while living through the most devastating economic recessions in American history. Reminiscent of silent movie star headshots, these portraits differed vastly from her personal work—which hovered between nude figures, light abstractions and private moments between her own friends and family. These personal pieces—which adapted to the various eras in which she lived—remained focused on the embodiment of beauty, defying certain popular themes as her career progressed in the 20th century.
As Dorr began her career in the early 1920s, the artistic styles of Dada and Surrealism were established to rebel against rationality in art. Considered “anti-art” these styles celebrating the dreamscape as a means of escaping the rational. The American photographer Man Ray (1890-1977) adopted the Dada movement in a series of abstract sensitized paper prints he called “Rayographs.” By the mid-1920s Man Ray had moved to Paris, experimenting with dream-like subjects while working as a commercial fashion photographer for various fashion magazines.
Though Nell Dorr did not consider herself a member of either movement, the technique of prints created through direct contact with sensitized paper, commonly known as photograms, as well as the practice of creating artistic work through commercial magazine contracts, harkens back to the influences of Man Ray. Produced in the 1950s Dorr’s abstractions were created with wildflowers and creative light. Dorr’s photographs, softly focused romanticized images, may have taken some inspiration from the idea of escaping into dreams but her subject matter veered sharply away from the paintings of Surrealists such as Salvador Dali. Whereas Ray and Dali works created a sense of foreboding, sometimes nightmarish scenes, Dorr chose to cast light on the gentle and tender; idealizing memory and dream.
At the same time, under the direction of Edward Steichen’s New York media company Conde Nast fostered the new artistic and commercial genre of photography called photojournalism. Artists, such as Man Ray, found that working as fashion photographers not only offered them well-paid commissions, but some freedom to express social feelings about class, sex inequality and culture. Dorr’s own commercial work focused on portraiture of society ladies in Miami but allowed her the financial freedom to explore her own personal photography. Just as street photography and Abstract Expressionism were taking hold in early ‘30s New York, Dorr was convinced to move to the city by Lillian Gish.
Dorr’s personal work in the late 1920s focused on the romantic carefree attitude as exampled by her nude figures in mangrove trees in Florida, but as the Great Depression progressed Dorr’s portraits became intimate. Indigenous men, European women, and artists including Peter Arno and Winold Reiss were all captured showing either a smile, a far-off look or an unmoving neutrality. Emotion and the personality of her subjects would continue as World War II loomed on the horizon.
Even as the war ended Dorr’s practice of personal photography continued much as it had, until 1954 when her youngest daughter died. This grief brought on a change in Nell’s philosophy for her private photography—to keep these photos of her daughter and their family’s soft moments of motherhood and carefree lifestyle would be a disservice. In 1954 Dorr published Mother & Child featuring these photos.
Though Dorr would publish more portfolios of her work in the 1960s and 70s—occasionally dipping into abstractions—her photography of delicate moments dominated her work. As Op art and the Pop revolution swept the nation with their ready-made art, Dorr largely ignored these styles to stay true to her depictions of motherly beauty and grace.