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Massillon Museum Presents Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Nell Dorr

Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Nell Dorr will open at the Massillon Museum on December 4, 2010. As a child, Nell Becker Dorr (1893–1988) learned the art of photography in her father’s studio just steps from the current location of the Massillon Museum. She matched those darkroom skills with her innate sense of artistry to earn international recognition.

The Massillon Museum invites the public to the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, December 4, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The party is free and no reservations are necessary.

Ninety black and white images will fill the main gallery, second-floor exhibition space, and the photography gallery. Darkroom equipment used by the photographer and long out-of-print photobooks she created will also be displayed.

The photographer first gained notice for her 1934 exhibition at Delphic Studios in New York City, Famous Men, which included images of Carl Sandburg and the man who would become her husband, inventor John Van Nostrand Dorr. Her lifelong dear friend, the actress Lillian Gish, provided entree into the world of well-known individuals.

The other side of Dorr’s artwork features more imaginary settings, children as fairy-like creatures in beautiful natural settings—sometimes mangrove swamps in Florida, other times New England woodlands. Later she created abstract photograms in her darkroom, creating imaginary scenes sometimes with just the light of a kitchen match to expose the images.

Dorr is best remembered for her images of mothers and their children as recorded in her 1954 book of verse and images, Mother and Child. During World War II, when her husband and her three sons-in-law were called to military service, Dorr gathered her daughters and their children in a rural Connecticut setting, where she recorded their idyllic lifestyle.

A year after the publication of Mother and Child, Dorr was included in Edward Steichen’s landmark photography exhibition and catalog, The Family of Man, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was one of ten artists in a 1983 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. that featured great women of photography.

In addition to two editions of Mother and Child, Dorr published five other books: Mangroves: Verse and Photographs (1933), In a Blue Moon (1939), The Bare Feet (1962), Of Night and Day (1968), and Life Dance (1975). In 1955, Dorr and her friend, the well-known children’s author Tasha Tudor, created a film, The Golden Key.

At the heart of the Massillon Museum’s exhibition are 18 prints that Dorr donated to the Museum in 1938. Her grandson, Christopher Ashe of Westport, Connecticut, donated dozens of prints as well as darkroom equipment to the Massillon Museum for inclusion in the exhibition and the permanent collection. The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which holds images from the estate of Nell Dorr, has loaned photographs, as have the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum in Washington, Connecticut, and Helen Meeker Bilby of New York City, who modeled for Dorr as a child.

The Museum’s second-floor photography gallery will be filled with prints by Jacob Becker, Nell Dorr’s father. From 1900 to 1920, Becker worked from his Charles Avenue studio in Massillon to create exquisitely lighted portraits. He was also the official photographer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In addition to teaching his young daughter darkroom skills and composition, in 1920, Becker moved with his wife to Florida, where Nell was living, and helped her build her own studio and darkroom. Becker’s photographs in the Massillon Museum’s permanent collection are primarily portraits, school photographs, and local groups.

A 72-page catalog accompanies the exhibition. In addition to 42 Nell Dorr photographs, the book contains a dozen images depicting the life of the photographer. Essays by curator Alexandra Nicholis, art historian Jan McCullagh, and local historian Margy Vogt offer insight into the artist’s work; her most famous book, Mother and Child; and her life. The catalog will be available in the Museum shop, Ohregionalities.

The Massillon Museum’s curator and interim executive director, Alexandra Nicholis, is curating the exhibition. She holds a BA in art history from Kent State University and an MA in art history through the joint program at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University. She has been with the Massillon Museum since 2001, where she has previously curated Stark Naked Salon (2009), Darkrooms in a Digital Age (2007), and Rediscovering William T. Mathews: Painter of Presidents (2005). Nicholis serves as adjunct faculty for Walsh University, teaching art history and museum studies courses. She also serves on the University’s Advisory Board, on the SPACElab committee of SPACES Gallery in Cleveland, and as president of Soroptimist International of Canton-Stark County.

Two special programs will augment the exhibition. “Do the Mu!” on Saturday, December 4, from noon to 2:00 p.m. will feature photography. Staff members will help participants of all ages learn about Nell Dorr and basic photography skills. At the “Photography Roundtable” on Thursday, February 24, participants may engage in lively conversation with the curator about photography and the exhibition. Both events are free and open to the public without reservations. Group tours for adults or children may be scheduled by contacting Museum Educator Jill Malusky at 330-833-4061 or click here to email her.

The exhibition is funded by a grant from The Dorr Foundation. The Massillon Museum additionally receives support from the Ohio Arts Council, ArtsinStark, and corporate sponsors: Sol—Harris/Day Architects, Bonnie’s Engravers Gallery and Signs, The Health Plan—HomeTown Region, Memory Productions , The Eye Clinic, Shearer’s Food, Inc., Connect USA, Inc., and Aqua Ohio.

Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Nell Dorr may be seen during regular Museum hours Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. through February 27. The Museum will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. A visit to the Massillon Museum is always free.

Image: Massillon Museum

The Massillon Museum is located at 121 Lincoln Way East (Ohio 172) in downtown Massillon. The Chit Chat Coffee Shoppe is located in the Museum lobby. For more information, call the Museum at 330-833-4061 or visit

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