She attended Ethical Culture School, then Columbia University, both in New York City.
Ulmann began her photography career as a portraitist in 1918. Her interest in American handicrafts took her to Appalachia around 1925, where she became taken with the people. For the rest of her life she spent six to eight months a year traveling through the mountains and back roads of the South with her companion John Jacob Niles. Despite the fact that she in no way hid her tremendous family wealth, Ulmann produced straightforward, unpretentious and respectful photographs of the Appalachian people, who remained unself-conscious before her camera's eye. In New York she photographed professional people.
Ulmann joined Pictorial Photographers of America in 1918.
During her marriage she was briefly known as Doris Jaeger.