What You Don’t See

Nell Dorr strove to portray an idealized version of American collective memory in both her art and her way of life but what is missing from the story? The photographer’s work represents both her own self-reference that is grounded in the mainstream Euro-American gaze that was the functional norm of the time. As such, to view Dorr’s images is to come away with a sense of an America that is not diverse in ethnicity or experience—nor ever was.  

The truth is quite different. Even while Dorr was recreating imagery that harkened back to America’s “golden” founding age, African Americans were engaged in a great migration from states like Florida where Dorr lived as a young bride and mother. They were fleeing limited opportunity and outright danger of Jim Crow South where it was the norm of everyday life. Although absent from the picture, Black Americans were part and parcel of American daily life just as during the Colonial Age that Dorr glorified in her work. The Tulsa Race Massacre, which wiped out a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma had happened in 1921, just two years before Dorr opened her Miami studio where she photographed society ladies and female politicians. 

While a champion of the value of the female experience and the inner lives of women, Dorr’s soft-focus images don’t reveal the hardships faced by women like herself, forced to earn their way in a world that did not welcome them into the workplace. She used the skills she learned in her father’s studio to keep her family afloat during a time of economic peril. 

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