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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Nell Dorr

Dates:  1893, 28 August - 1988
Born:  US, OH, Cleveland
Died:  US, CT, Washington
Active:  US
Abstractions and she used a pictorialist style to show beauty and harmony in her images rather than the surrounding horror so well represented in other photography. Her book ‘Mother and Child‘ explores the deep relationships that exist.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Nell Dorr
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Nell Dorr was never part of the pictorial movementóshe did not join clubs or exhibit in salonsóbut her work sports soft-focus effects and sentimental subject matter (largely the theme of mother and child). She produced many of her personal photographs in the 1950s and 1960s, at the very tail end of pictorialism.
Born in Cleveland on August 28, 1893, Nell Becker moved seven years later with her family to Massilon, Ohio, just outside of Canton. At about this time, her father, John Jacob Becker, a portrait and railroad photographer, began teaching her photography, giving her a pinhole camera, showing her how to mix chemicals, and taking her on summer assignments. She married at age seventeen, quickly had three girls, and in 1923 moved to Florida. In 1927, Dorr returned to photography in order to support her family, after her husband lost money and his livelihood in a real estate bust. She opened a studio, specialized in portraits of men, and made personal work of children, nudes, and flowers. In 1932, a year after divorcing her husband, she moved to New York and established a portrait studio on East 59th Street that drew a good clientele, thanks to the help of her childhood friend Lillian Gish, the actress. Over the next few years, Dorr was busy exhibiting, fulfilling commissions, and receiving awards. In 1934, the year she remarried, her work was shown in Paris and comprised two solo shows in New York, including one of portraits of famous men at the Delphic Gallery. Her new husband, Dr. John Van Nostrand Dorr, became an internationally known scientist and inventor.
Dorr ventured into filmmaking in 1947, making The Singing Earth with the modern Kurtgraff Ballet Company. Subsequently, she made two additional 16mm films, including The Golden Key (1958), which staged a dollís wedding. Among the exhibitions of her work around this time were the Museum of Modern Artís The Family of Man (1955), with four of her pieces, and a solo show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1964.
Perhaps Dorrís largest audience was achieved through her five books. In 1933, she self-published Mangroves, 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. Six years later, G. P. Putnamís Sons issued In a Blue Moon, a small hardcover made up of many of the same images, but better printedóin gravure. In 1962, her oversize book The Bare Feet appeared, with impressionistic images of the inhabitants of a small Mexican village. Six years later, the New York Graphic Society issued Of Night and Day, representing Dorrís "photographic essay on manís 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. Mother and Child was, undoubtedly, Dorrís most popular and personal book. Published in 1954 as a tribute to her youngest daughter who had recently died, it deals with the universal themes of motherhood, home, and simple living. Nearly twenty years later, it was reissued, slightly altered.
Nell Dorr, who became a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS), photographed as late as 1981, turning her camera on one of her great granddaughters. She died at her home in Washington, Connecticut, in 1988. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Further research

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If you have a portrait of this photographer or know of the whereabouts of one we would be most grateful.
Family history 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Internet resources

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Nell Dorr ... 
This site was done by a student, Blythe Daly, who was the daughter of an old friend of Nell Dorr. 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.214 [Includes a well written short biography on Nell Dorr with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia & Lippard, Lucy 1997 Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. Selections from the Helen Kornblum Collection (Saint Louis Art Museum, D.A.P.) [Nell Dorr is included in this overview of women photographers.] 
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