Monday, October 17, 2011

Photographer captures life's curiosities

Via  The Wisconsin State Journal

Ida Wyman was sitting at her kitchen table in Fitchburg the other day, explaining why she hadn't taken more photos of a future U.S. president when she had the chance.
"I was there to cover Bonzo," Wyman said.

In November 1950, Life magazine sent Wyman to the set of "Bedtime for Bonzo," a film with a chimpanzee in the title role, supported by an actor named Ronald Reagan.

"He supposedly understood 500 commands," Wyman said of Bonzo. "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."
She paused. "Reagan was friendly, too."

Wyman was holding a photo she took that day of Reagan holding Bonzo. "Who knew he was going to be president?"

Ida Wyman: Ronald Reagan with "Bonzo", California, 1950

Ida Wyman, 85, is a great American photographer who five years ago moved to the Madison area without a lot of fanfare. She has a granddaughter who lives here. And while Wyman has had a couple of exhibits of her work locally since then, she remains pretty much under the radar.

That may change when "Ida Wyman: Portraits of America," debuts Oct. 28 at the Paoli House Gallery. The exhibit runs through Nov. 20, and there will be an artist's reception from 5 to 9 p.m. Nov. 11. The Reagan-Bonzo photograph is included in the exhibit of some 30 images.

In addition, Wyman will be heading to New York City for the opening celebration early next month of "The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951," at the Jewish Museum.

Wyman was a member of the Photo League — which encouraged photographs of the gritty realities of ordinary New Yorkers — and her work will be part of the exhibit, which runs Nov. 4 through March 25.

"My style and outlook were compatible with the league," she said. "I was already shooting in a documentary style, not posed."

She got her start in the high school camera club, growing up in the Bronx borough of New York City, where her parents were grocers.

"Usually cash poor," Wyman said. "It took a lot of coaxing to get my father to give me $5 for my first camera."

It was a modified box camera, and Wyman toted it around the city, capturing people and scenes, driven by a curiosity that has not diminished, even all these years later.

"If I'm standing on line," she said — New Yorkers don't stand "in line," they stand "on line" — "I will get the story of the people in front of me."

The camera club taught her to develop film, and over time she learned about lighting, movement, shutter speed — the tools of her craft. Still, out of high school — she graduated early, at 16 —Wyman wanted to be a nurse, not a photographer. It turned out nursing students had to be 18.

She contacted New York newspapers and news services looking for work as a photographer, instead landing a job as a printer for Acme Newspictures.

When that ended in 1945 — the men returned from the war — Wyman began pitching photo story ideas to magazines like Look and Life. She made inroads with some editors and began hanging out at the Photo League. In 1948, she took a cross-country trip, taking photographs all the way, winding up in Los Angeles, where she spent several years.

The "Bonzo" assignment came then, as did another from Life that required Wyman to travel to northern California with Richard Nixon, who was running for the U.S. Senate in 1950 against Helen Gahagan Douglas.

Nixon spoke to miners at a gold mine — "his wife gave me a gold nugget," Wyman recalled — though the photo of Nixon in the Paoli exhibit will be one Wyman snapped in a northern California deli.

"He was genuinely friendly, one on one," she said of Nixon. "On stage, you never saw it."

What got her temporarily out of photography was raising her children. That was back in New York, and it was there, no longer married, that Wyman in 1969 went to work as chief photographer with the Department of Pathology at Columbia University.

In 1983, after a cancer scare, Wyman resolved to return to her true love, magazine photography. "People said I was crazy," she said, but she revived her career.

She came to Madison in 2006, and likes it here, though she wishes the buses came by her neighborhood more often. Afternoons, when the light in her condo falls just right, she gets inspired. She's working on a memoir. Beyond that, Ida Wyman will go where her curiosity takes her.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
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