Ida Wyman: Chords of Memory |
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Ida Wyman: Chords of Memory

Ida at Burbank Airport, Los Angeles, 1950. Photograph by Simon Nathan.
Ida at Burbank Airport, Los Angeles, 1950. Photograph by Simon Nathan.

Ida Wyman, now 87 and a relative newcomer to Madison, may not be familiar to younger Wisconsinites. But it’s likely her post-war photographs will strike a chord with older ones. Wyman began at an early age to photograph everyday scenes of her native New York City and its people. 

She eventually went on to become a creator of photo essays—what she calls “picture stories”—for Life magazine, the New York Times, and many other popular publications. Wyman produced hundreds of photos of Americans from all walks of life, making her one of the early adopters of a form known as documentary photography. Many of Wyman’s classic photos are now in public museums and private collections as she has joined the ranks of pioneering American photojournalists like Jacob A. Riis and Lewis W. Hine.

It was near the end of the nineteenth century that a police reporter named Jacob A. Riis used a relatively novel tool to chronicle and bring attention to the plight of people living in the slums and tenements of New York City. Today best known for his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Riis used flash photography to document the squalid conditions of Lower East Side tenement houses. 

For his groundbreaking work of photojournalism, Riis is often celebrated as one of the first documentary photographers in the United States. But it was sociologist-turned-photographer Lewis W. Hine who brought to documentary photography a deeply human empathy for the individuals he photographed, coupled with a finely attuned aesthetic sensibility. In Hine’s work, as in Wyman’s, we find the unique combination of—in the words of Jewish Museum of New York curator Mason Klein—“realism and aesthetic presence” that is so essential to documentary photography as we know it today.

Taken from 1908 to 1916 for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine’s photographs of young children at work in mills, mines, and on the farms and city streets of America told a story of exploitation and suffering impossible to ignore. These photographs were instrumental in changing American child labor laws, and Hine’s images of sweatshop workers aided the passage of work reform legislation. A native of Oshkosh, Hine created a series of photographs later in life that depicted men and women at work, emphasizing the importance and dignity of humans in the process of industrial production. Near the end of his life, Hine said, “There were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected; I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”

Writing in Photo Notes, the newsletter of New York’s storied Photo League, art historian and critic Elizabeth McCausland introduced the term documentary photography in 1939 to differentiate photography intended to present factual visual evidence—“the vanguard of photography today”—from photography as artistic expression. She spoke to the social climate of the Depression years as she described documentary photography as “an application of photography direct and realistic, dedicated to the profound and sober chronicling of the external world.”

Invoking Riis and Hine as the progenitors of photography as visual testimony, McCausland disparaged movements in art photography such as Pictorialism and subsequent modernist experiments: “We have all had a surfeit of ‘pretty’ pictures, of romantic views of hilltop, seaside, rolling fields, skyscrapers seen askew, picturesque bits of life torn out of their sordid context.” In contrast, she continued, “It is life that is exciting and important, and life whole and unretouched. By virtue of this new spirit of realism, photography looks now at the external world with new eyes, the eyes of scientific, uncompromising honesty.” 

The unique admixture of untouched realism and aesthetic presence is found in the images created by photographer Ida Wyman. Wyman’s photographic vignettes of life in urban centers and small towns in the United States, taken during the mid-twentieth century, illuminate the historical moment while providing a deeply humanist perspective on her subjects. Variously suggesting anecdote and narrative, her images chronicle life as Wyman photographically witnessed, experienced, and interpreted it as she walked the streets of New York City and other locales and traveled on her own across America. 

While she began as a maker of individual images, Wyman often conceived of her photojournalistic projects as “picture stories” rather than as individual images. And, like her predecessor Hine, she envisioned multiple photographs of a subject or situation as the means to most effectively achieve the project’s narrative function.

Her photographs reveal the extraordinary within what, at first glance, might appear to be otherwise unremarkable. Reflecting the related practices of documentary photography, photojournalism, and street photography, these images are a testament to Wyman’s abiding curiosity about the human condition and the complexity of human experience, both familiar and unfamiliar.


The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ida Wyman was born March 7, 1926 in Malden, Massachusetts. The family soon moved to New York, where her parents ran a small grocery store in the Bronx. In her unpublished memoir entitled Girl Photographer: From the Bronx to Hollywood and Back, Wyman describes the store as the center of the childhood world she shared with her brother:

We took turns eating in the back of the store, a place crammed with unopened boxes of canned goods taking up most of the space. One small corner had a sink, an enamel-topped table, a two-burner gas stove and one chair. If my brother and I wanted to eat at the same time, one of us had to sit on the cartons. Practically all of our meals, cooked on the two-burner, were eaten here since my mother worked almost the same long hours as my father. My mother prepared food with one eye on her stove and the other alert for customers.

She was observant and inquisitive about the world around her. “I was always curious—about people, about how things work,” she remembers. When she was fourteen years old she begged her parents for money to buy a camera and began photographing people and buildings in her neighborhood. She joined the Walton High School Camera Club, learned how to develop and print film, and bought an inexpensive enlarger so that she could print at home, using the family’s kitchen as a darkroom.

Picture magazines like Life and Look in which photographic narratives made up the majority of content were Wyman’s introduction to photography as a means of depicting the world. Since their advent in the 1930s, these magazines had become important venues for documentary photographers.

Significantly, picture magazines such as these offered women photographers more opportunities than did newspapers and picture agencies, particularly during World War II when women took on the types of photographic projects previously assigned to men. Life, founded in 1936, published thousands of photo essays by photographic luminaries such as Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, whose photograph of the Fort Peck Dam was featured on the cover of the inaugural issue. From 1936 until 1972, when it ceased weekly publication, Life accumulated an unparalleled archive of several million photographs.

Many of these photographs read as candid images of spontaneous moments, made possible by the introduction of smaller, more portable cameras that enabled the transformation of news photography into photojournalism. The social connectedness and vitality of urban street life was a predominant theme at mid-century for photojournalists and for independent photographers making images for their own expressive purposes.

Wyman’s high school camera club’s faculty advisor invited Life magazine staff photographer Bernard Hoffman to speak to the students; he encouraged Wyman to pursue a career in photography and later became a friend. “In the end it was because of Bernie that I became a nationally published photographer at a time when few women did this work and they were not welcomed by their male counterparts,” Wyman writes in her memoir.

Wyman graduated from high school in 1943, shortly before her seventeenth birthday. She planned to become a nurse, but was too young to attend nursing school. Though she did not envision a career as a photographer, Wyman was proud of her high-school photographic and darkroom experience and was certain she would find work as a staff photographer with one of New York’s many newspapers.

During her job hunt, an editor Wyman spoke with at Acme Newspictures told her that all Acme staff photographers had begun their careers in the mailroom. At the time many Acme staffers were in the armed services, providing the opportunity Wyman needed. She became the agency’s first “‘girl’ mailroom boy,” pulling prints from the large commercial print dryers, squeegeeing them dry, pasting captions on the back, and distributing them into boxes for Acme’s subscribers. She was soon promoted to printer, joining the all-male photo printing staff—most of whom resisted the addition of a “girl” to their ranks. Still, she recalls, the job was thrilling.

Wyman soon purchased a 3¼ x 4¼ Graflex Speed Graphic camera—slightly smaller and less expensive than the 4 x 5 Speed Graphic that was the standard camera at the time for professional news photographers—and a leather case, film holders, and film. “Hefting that case onto my shoulder made me feel truly professional,” she writes. “I’d load up my film holders in the Acme darkroom and set out looking for pictures on my lunch hours.” Wyman photographed office workers and laborers on their lunch breaks, men at work in the nearby Garment District, and people in the streets. 

Though Wyman doesn’t care for the term, this approach to street photography characterizes much of her work. “Life was in the streets,” she says. “That’s where you were. Nobody thought of it as street photography. Most photographers’ photos were out of doors.”

The photographs she made were shaped by her incisive observations of human interaction within this lively urban landscape. “Wearing the camera trumped my shyness,” she now recalls. “It enabled me to talk to complete strangers and hear their stories. … I wasn’t threatening and I wore saddle shoes with bobby socks.” She writes, “I saw the street more clearly carrying the camera, becoming more aware of the sun forming interesting textures and designs on the varied architecture, the expressions on faces and the hustle and bustle created by crowds intent on their destination.”


After three years at Acme, Wyman realized that she didn’t want to be a news photographer. Instead she wanted to work for the picture magazines, as more photos were used in these than in newspapers, and she would always be learning something new about her subjects. She began assigning herself photographic narratives and in 1945 sold her first picture story to Look magazine. As often as she could, Wyman took pictures—and some were published. In the fall of that same year, as men returned from military service, Wyman was dismissed from her job at Acme. She had begun her career as a professional photographer.

In 1946, Wyman married Simon Nathan, an Acme staff photographer who left Acme later that year to build his own career as an independent photographer. Though work for freelance photographers was not steady, Nathan gained commercial clients and Wyman increasingly received assignments from Life and other magazines.

Morris Engel, a photographer for PM (a daily New York tabloid) and a member of New York’s Photo League, was a friend of Nathan’s. At her husband’s suggestion Wyman began attending a group run by Engel and joined the League. Participation in the Photo League didn’t alter Wyman’s already prolific practice of photographing life as she saw it happening around her. Rather, it was where Wyman says she “learned that photos could be used to effect change.”

I considered myself a documentary photographer, and the League’s philosophy of honest photography appealed to me. I also began to understand the power of photographs to help improve the social order by showing the conditions under which many people lived and worked. Even after leaving the League the following year, I continued to emphasize visual and social realities in my straightforward photographs.

Members of the Photo League were known for their progressive politics. While the group initially sought to use photography to challenge issues such as racial inequality, war, and poverty, their focus turned more toward experimental aesthetics over time. During the Red Scare the League was targeted and was blacklisted in 1947. With a dwindling membership, it was forced to disband in 1951. Nonetheless, the League remains widely lauded today for its invaluable contributions to documentary photography. 

It’s important to note that women were vital contributors to the Photo League, comprising approximately one-third of the membership and serving in key roles within the organization. Columbus Museum of Art curator Catherine Evans emphasizes the uniqueness of the League in this regard: “Most significantly, the women of the Photo League were prolific and prominent artists working in documentary photography at a time when the arts, criticism, social commentary, and indeed most other professional fields still belonged largely to men.”

Though Wyman was a member for just two years—she left because she was increasingly busy with magazine assignments—her alignment with the aims of the Photo League is apparent in her work. She shared with other members a photographic vision shaped by a common background and social location. Art curator Mason Klein writes in an essay from The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951 that “what distinguishes the League’s treatment of photography was not the belief that its work could effect social change, as is generally surmised, but that its members—predominantly Jewish, working-class, and first-generation Americans living in a multi-ethnic city—were fascinated by the city’s composite nature and strongly identified with it.”

Wyman says she was compelled by the powerful images created by the photographers who documented the effects on ordinary people wrought by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, photographers employed by the Resettlement Administration, which became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937, produced as many as 270,000 photographs. Created to alleviate rural poverty exacerbated by the Great Depression, the industrialization of farming, and the Dust Bowl, these programs employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to produce images that would raise public awareness and gain congressional support for FSA efforts.

Yet Wyman’s work displays a broader affinity with Photo League contemporaries, who sought subjects across a broader social spectrum within their contemporary urban landscape, than with the Farm Security Administration photographers. In diverse neighborhoods she photographed a range of social interactions and moments of focused solitude; her images of people on the move suggest the resurgence of social mobility in the post-war years.

Wyman never looked down on her subjects, visually or socially. There is gentle irony to some of these photographs, but not the sardonic recording of outsiders and misfits characteristic of the work of some of her contemporaries like street photographers Weegee (Arthur Fellig) and Lisette Model (whose images Wyman found occasionally “invasive”). Wyman’s photographs are both exquisitely composed and visually compelling. While people within their own social environment are most often the focus of Wyman’s photographs, she attended as well to the details—architectural embellishments, commercial signs, utilitarian objects—that balance a composition, provide visual interest, and ground these images in their time and place.


In 1948, Wyman decided to travel across the United States by bus. She had never been outside the northeast. Her trip to major cities and small towns was planned around assignments and included places about which she was curious (and some, such as Vandalia, Illinois, because she liked the name). She traveled alone, taking more than two weeks to get from New York City to Laredo, Texas, and then continued on to Mexico City. Throughout her journey, she photographed voraciously.

When she returned from her travels Wyman continued to work for Business Week, Fortune, Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, This Week (a Sunday newspaper supplement), as well as for Life and other magazines. She had commercial clients as well. But she wanted most of all to see her photographs in print in Life, the premiere picture magazine at that time. On the advice of Life editor Ruth Lester, Wyman set off for the magazine’s Los Angeles bureau, where there were fewer photographers competing for assignments. Again, she traveled alone; her husband stayed in New York to pursue his own career. It was 1949; she was twenty-three years old.

In Los Angeles, Wyman became known as “the girl photographer from Life magazine.” She photographed a range of subjects for Life: a young actress’s tennis lesson, a women’s club tea party, the world’s largest rummage sale. Her cover story, “A Day at the Beach,” featuring a high school girl and a handsome life guard frolicking on the Santa Monica beach, ran in the July 4, 1949 issue, with three pages of additional photos inside. She also photographed movies being filmed, including White Heat, starring James Cagney; A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift; and Bedtime for Bonzo, featuring Ronald Reagan and Bonzo the chimpanzee. In 1950 she was assigned to cover the U.S. Senate race between Helen Gahagan Douglas and Richard Nixon.

She remembers a favorite Life assignment that began as a story about an increase in marriages during the Korean War, a story in which she became a key actor:

I had already shot the crowds and couples waiting in line, filling out forms, or holding hands when I met Bob, a Marine, and his bride-to-be, Beverly, both from Seattle. He was leaving for Camp Pendleton, to be shipped off somewhere else the following day. They desperately wanted to be married before he left for overseas, but they could not get a license that day because they hadn’t obtained the necessary blood test. Suddenly, I realized I could probably help them. First, I got permission from the Life office to continue on this story instead of the original assignment, and then I called a judge whom I had photographed on another assignment. After he heard about the couple, he agreed not only to waive the blood test, but to marry them in his chambers that afternoon. There was yet another problem. Neither Bob nor Beverly had brought enough money for their wedding rings. I rushed back to the Life office, got money from petty cash, and we all went to a jewelry store to buy one. Then we rushed over to the judge’s chambers…. After the ceremony, the couple invited me to go with them to Camp Pendleton. …  Bob asked me to come see him off in the morning, saying “You’re part of the family.” I did, photographing the newlyweds’ poignant farewell.

With three pages of photographs, this photo essay ran in the September 25, 1950, issue of Life as “Two Kids Who Had So Little Time: A Korea-bound Marine and his girl are wed and then parted as the war marriage business booms again.”

Characteristically, Wyman also explored Los Angeles alone with her camera. She photographed in an area of the city where, in the path of a freeway under construction, intricately ornamented houses were being destroyed and their residents displaced. In La Loma, a nearby Mexican American neighborhood, she made friends with several people and was invited into their homes and to local clubs to hear music and to dance.

“The dusty streets of La Loma and the people are an important part of my Los Angeles memories,” she recalls. “Children were friendly, curious, and willing to have me photograph them. I never tried to hide the camera and took pictures when people seemed comfortable. From my own background, I understood the reality of life in La Loma, the struggle to survive.”

From 1947 through 1951 Wyman completed nearly one hundred assignments for Life, and her photographs also appeared in other widely read publications. She expected to continue working for these magazines after she returned to New York to resume her married life. But Wyman found herself unable to accept assignments after the birth of her children due to the consuming demands of parenting and domestic work. With her career on hold, her husband’s continued and Wyman assisted him with printing and other organizational tasks. Sometimes he cared for the children so she could work for commercial clients, but her photographs were most often of her children.


This career pause—what felt to Wyman like the end—was not unique: In the 1950s women were expected to postpone or cancel their careers in deference to the needs of husbands and children. Though she had taken the bold step in her early twenties of traveling alone across the United States and Mexico, and had worked independent of Nathan as a photographer in Los Angeles, there was an inevitability to her decision to return to New York and raise a family. The careers of many other women photographers active during the 1940s and early 1950s ended in this manner, and the work of too many has been forgotten.

After a decade as a homemaker, Wyman returned to her career in photography. “I was a good mother,” she says, “but I was also a good photographer.”

She worked as a photographer of scientific research projects for Haskins Laboratories in New York, and then as Chief Photographer for the Department of Pathology at Columbia University, making black and white as well as color photographs for teaching and publication. After leaving Columbia in 1983 to return to freelance photography, she sought assignments from the New York Times and other newspapers in order to get the credit line that would enable her to once again go after magazine work.

“I was starting over,” she says, “but I could still shoot pictures.”

By the 1990s, years of carrying heavy camera equipment had taken their toll and, with severe back pain, Wyman could no longer pursue these freelance assignments. Instead she turned to shooting stock photography, working in black and white and color.

Also, visits to exhibitions of historic and contemporary photography impelled her to approach New York galleries with her own work, beginning with Howard Greenberg. Greenberg responded positively to what he saw and directed her to friends at other galleries as well. The art world’s acknowledgment of the aesthetic as well as social dimensions of documentary photography and photojournalism has brought over time increasing attention to Wyman’s photographs, now widely exhibited in art museums and galleries throughout the United States and abroad. Her photographs have been featured in solo and group exhibitions at many galleries that represent her work today: the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, the Courturier Gallery (formerly John Cleary) in Houston, the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, and the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe. Her work can be found in collections around the world, from New York (Soho Triad Fine Arts, The New York City Public Library, the International Center of Photography, the Jewish Museum of New York) to Spain (Fundación Municipal de Cultura, Valladolid) and even in her adopted hometown of Madison (Madison Museum of Contemporary Art). Wyman moved to Madison in 2006 to be closer to members of her family, and she lives there today.

Her work is a testament to the vitality of documentary photography as a fundamentally humanist practice. With discernment and empathy, throughout her notable career Wyman persisted in photographing ordinary people in their urban and small-town landscapes, capturing their quiet human dramas and their moments of solitude. The lasting legacy of her photographs derives from their aesthetic presence as well as their incisive and compassionate visual recording of these mid-century moments, each one striking a chord of memory.

Their notes ring out clear and true: We were here, they say, and Ida Wyman was paying attention.

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Melanie Herzog is professor of art history at Edgewood College in Madison. She holds an MFA in ceramics and a PhD in art history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Herzog teaches, publishes, and lectures widely on North American art and visual culture.

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