Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer Ulrike Welsch’s ears are “still ringing with the music” after her latest photography trip — this one to the Baltic states Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, where she attended the famous Song and Dance Festival in Riga.
“It was just so powerful,” Welsch told the Current during a recent interview in her Marblehead kitchen. “The music goes down to your soul.”
Welsch, who turns 83 next month, has traveled the world capturing experiences few seldom get to see first hand. She has visited more than 47 countries, snapping photos everywhere she goes.
“I like to capture a moment, a decisive moment in a face, of a storytelling happening or the light in a scene,” she said about her photography. “I like harmony and dislike ugliness. Composition means a lot to me. The eye needs to follow through the image. I like to make a statement with a scene, a happening or a face.”
Welsch is one of those Marbleheaders who, once you get to talking, you realize has led a truly remarkable life. Born in Germany during World War II, she immigrated to Boston in 1962 and started working at Smith’s Camera House.
“Being in a big city in a new land, I started taking pictures,” she remembered. “I walked around at night and shot in black-and-white.”
Welsch improved her skills and accepted a job as a photography instructor at a summer camp in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. She came back even more accomplished and started applying for jobs at Boston newspapers. She was hired at the Boston Herald Traveler, that paper’s first woman photographer.
“When I went for my interview, they had pinups on the walls, and when I came back on my first day, they had taken down all the pinups, and there was a new sign that read, ‘No more swearing,’” she recalled.
Welsch remembers how most of the male photographers refused to accept her. When the men were done with their daily assignments, they sat around to play cards, but she went out into the city to look for more stories. Those photos often ended up on the front page.
“That’s how my name became known,” she said.
After five years at the Herald Traveler, she moved over to the Boston Globe. She was part of the Globe team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Boston’s busing crisis.
During her career, she has photographed luminaries including Queen Elizabeth, Pope John Paul, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Richard Nixon, actor Henry Fonda, Boston sports stars Bobby Orr and Carl Yastrzemski, Jacques Cousteau, the king and queen of Thailand and Russian author and activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Welsch has photographed several members of the Kennedy family, including Rose, Jackie, Caroline and John Kennedy Jr. She covered Robert Kennedy’s funeral, where she almost got kicked out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
“I had to climb an arch and lean way over to see the faces of the Kennedy family,” she said. “I took a picture of Ethel (Kennedy’s widow). A man said if I did that again, I’d get kicked out. But I got the prize-winning photo.”
The famous and powerful aren’t her favorite subjects.
“I enjoy photographing common people more,” she said.
Welsch went on several trips with the Globe and other outlets to shoot photos. She traveled with the wife of then-Gov. Frank Sargent on a People-to-People Mission to Colombia to deliver medical supplies.
“We visited orphanages, prisons, small towns and fishing villages,” she said.
Those photos made up Welsch’s first of 13 books.
Song and dance
In addition to photography and travel, Welsch loves music and wanted to incorporate music into her latest journey. After much research, she discovered the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, one of the world’s largest amateur singing and dancing festivals. She booked her plane tickets and set her alarm for 2 a.m. to order seats at several events before they sold out.
Welsch added quick tours of nearby Estonia and Lithuania to round out the trip, but the highlight was the music in Latvia.
At one event, a choir of more than 17,000 singers performed to a crowd of 50,000 people.
“So many people singing at the same time, in beautiful costumes — it was just wonderful,” she said.
Welsch is still poring through all her Latvia photos and hopes to present them either at the Abbot Library or the Council on Aging soon.
Asked whether she has planned her next trip yet, she laughed and said, “Everyone asks me that. I don’t have another trip planned yet. I’m still living this last one.”
For more information on Welsch and her photography, visit ulrikewelschphotos.com/.
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.