Former Life magazine photographer Ida Wyman, who moved to Madison from New York City in 2006, quickly making friends and photos, died Saturday at Agrace HospiceCare in Fitchburg. She was 93.
“You can’t create what happens in the world, but sometimes you see it,” Wyman told a Wisconsin State Journal reporter in 2014 — at age 88 — before an exhibit of her work at the James Watrous Gallery in Overture Center for the Arts.
Wyman’s work was featured on the cover of Life magazine and is included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s collection. The New York Times ran an obituary on Wyman on its website Friday.
Martha Glowacki, who was director of the James Watrous Gallery at the time of Wyman’s exhibition, got to know her well while curating the show, and kept in contact with her afterwards, even attending her 90th birthday party at Hotel RED.
“She was really a gifted photographer,” Glowacki said. “She was just kind of an indomitable person and really was someone who valued connections with people when she did her photography.”
She did a lot of photography on the streets of New York, and would always ask permission before she photographed people. In talking with them, she made real connections, Glowacki said. “So when you look at those photographs, she had formed some kind of a personal bond with those people and that’s how she went through her life.”
Wyman’s granddaughter, Heather Garrison, of Fitchburg, brought her grandmother to Madison, and even though she was 80 at the time, she adjusted quickly, and was glad to have more space.
“She was happy to move here. She had a condo and was able to have a small garden,” Garrison said. “Certainly, she was sad to leave New York, but she (was) an amazing woman and she made a ton of connections here in Madison.”
One connection she made was with the Beth Israel Center on Madison’s Near West Side. She joined the congregation a year after moving to Madison, said Elissa Pollack, Beth Israel’s executive director.
“She was quite a woman,” Pollack said. “She was kind and a little surprising sometimes.”
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Because Wyman was humble, Pollack said she was amazed to later find out about her career at Life magazine, for which she did more than 100 assignments in the 1940s and early 1950s.
In November 1950, Life magazine sent Wyman to the set of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” a film with a chimpanzee in the title role, and the actor and future president Ronald Reagan.
“He supposedly understood 500 commands,” Wyman said of Bonzo in a 2011 State Journal story. “He was short, like a little kid, but his grip was something else. He’d chatter at me, and I’d chatter back. He was very friendly.”
Reagan was friendly, too, she said.
Wyman was a member of New York’s Photo League, which encouraged documentary-style photographs of the gritty realities of ordinary New Yorkers.
She got her start in the high school camera club, growing up in the Bronx, where her parents, immigrants from Latvia, were grocers. “Usually cash poor,” Wyman told the State Journal in 2011. “It took a lot of coaxing to get my father to give me $5 for my first camera.”
Her first job was not as a photographer, but in the mailroom of Acme Newspictures, where she later became its first woman printer. She was fired in 1945 when men returned to their jobs after World War II. That’s when Wyman began pitching photos to magazines like Look, Life and Business Week.
She interrupted her photo career to raise her children. In 1969, no longer married, she took a job as chief photographer with the Department of Pathology at Columbia University. In 1983, after a cancer scare, Wyman revived her photojournalism career.
Art historian Melanie Herzog, who collaborated with Wyman for the catalog that accompanied her 2014 exhibit in Madison, said Wyman had a unique way of documenting what she encountered wherever she went.
“Out of sheer curiosity, she saw the extraordinary in what most of us would see as ordinary,” Herzog said.