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Remembering Ida Wyman Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

20 July 2019

She was easy to miss. Born in Malden, Mass., to immigrants from Latvia, she moved before anyone noticed her to the Bronx when her parents opened a small grocery store.

When she was 14, her parents bought her a box camera which she used to photograph the people and places of her neighborhood. She joined the camera club in high school where she learned to print photos.

That came in handy during World War II when she landed a job at Acme after graduation in 1943, working first in the mailroom and then as a printer.

But she kept her Graflex Speed Graphic close by and at lunchtime would photograph the office workers and laborers on the street. Wearing saddle shoes and bobby socks, the uniform for girls in the 1940s, she wasn't threatening to anyone. And that big camera "trumped my shyness," as she put it.

When the war ended, Acme's only female printer was fired so a man could have her job.

But she moved on to better things, freelancing for magazines like Business Week, Fortune and Coronet. By 1948 she found herself working on assignments for Life magazine in Los Angeles.

There she photographed James Cagney, Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald Reagan with his chimpanzee co-star in Bedtime for Bonzo, among other notables. They all liked her.

'Taking pictures enabled me to hear the stories of the people I photographed...'

In 1951 she married Simon Nathan, who was a photographer at Acme. He suggested she join the Photo League where she learned to produce images that argued for social change.

After her first child was born, she put the camera aside. Three years later, the family welcomed a daughter. That kept her busy until 1962 when she returned to photography full time.

She took a job with Haskin Laboratories and then as chief photographer in the pathology department at Columbia University's College of Pbysicians and Surgeons.

That didn't keep her from freelancing, though. Or from finally graduating from college.

She gave up freelancing in her mid-sixties, weary of dragging all that gear around.

By then her photographs had begun appearing in both group and solo exhibitions, appreciated as the equal of any other Photo League work. Galleries took an interest. The girl who was easy to miss began getting noticed.

Her approach to street photography was unusual. She always introduced herself and asked if she could take a picture. She'd come back to photograph them over and over. But she never posed them.

She was interested in their lives as much as their images. "Taking pictures enabled me to hear the stories of the people I photographed," she said, "which satisfied an immense curiosity to learn and understand the lives of others, lives different in experience and age from my own."

In 2006 she moved to Madison, Wis., to be near her granddaughter. There she quickly made friends as easily as photographs. She was so humble, no one suspected her of having worked for Life magazine.

Wyman passed away in a hospice on July 13 at the age of 93, survived by her son, her daughter and two great-grandsons. She will be missed.

"You can't create what happens in the world," she told a local reporter there, "but sometimes you see it."

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