Ida Wyman’s Photography Documents Life in the 1940s and ’50s
What a gift to be able to document life—to capture a moment and preserve it, to put a small pause on the fleetingness of time but also share the way things were with viewers at points in the future.
Wyman, a photojournalist turned artist, was raised in New York City, where she photographed the world around her starting as a teenager. She began her career in the 1940s, a time when men dominated the field, working at Manhattan’s Acme Newspictures before becoming a successful freelance photographer for Life, The New York Times, Collier’s, Fortune and other publications—from 1947 to 1951, she took on nearly one hundred assignments for Life alone! Now eighty-seven years old, she lives here in Madison.
The exhibition features a rich mix of mostly black and white images, many of them new prints from Wyman’s work during the 1940s and ’50s. A wide range of subjects are represented—children at play, city street scenes, people at work, men and women in their homes, rural scenes and more—but each photograph reveals Wyman’s knack for imbuing a sense of dignity and authenticity into regular people and everyday life.
“Showing ordinary people in their everyday activities is what interested me the most,” the artist is quoted in the exhibition. “Dignity and respect to my subjects have been just as important to me as a well-composed photo.”
Notes from Wyman are included with many of the photographs in the show. For instance, alongside “Girl with Hat and Chalk Lines, The Bronx, NYC, 1947,” an image of a child bent over to draw on the sidewalk, Wyman comments that the scene brought back memories of her own childhood in which “Life was in the streets.”
While her photographs take viewers to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Mexico, the Midwest and beyond, many are set within New York City, with it busy streets often serving as a setting.
Children, too, provide a thread through the show. In “Bleacher Boys—Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, NYC, 1944,” a row of five boys sit on bleachers watching a baseball game, their coats, hat and mitt resting in front of them. And “Checking Out the Game, Philadelphia, 1948” shows five kids huddled around a cement stoop playing a game.
Rounding out the exhibition are four cases holding photos of Wyman, books her photography is featured in and samples of her work for Life.
A blend of personal and historic perspectives, of photojournalism and art, The Chords of Memory offers a thoughtful and compelling introduction to the talented Wyman.
The photographer opens his exhibition with “A Guide to Modern Camp Homes: 10 New Models & Plans to Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” a book inspired by a 1940s Sears, Roebuck and Company guide of modern home models. It’s a “fictional but factual” publication that examines the living conditions that displaced Japanese Americans encountered before and during World War II. Miyazaki uses pleasant commercial language to describe the barracks that served as internment camps.
Miyazaki also offers sixteen photographs from his Camp Home series, in which he documents the interment camps in northern California and northwest Wyoming—where members of his father’s family were forced to live during the war—that have since been adapted into homes, barns and other buildings.
His photographs reveal the corrugated metal siding of a building, a doorway opening to a field and small details such as a welcome sign on a front door, a tape measure nailed to a board and names carved into a wooden wall.
No humans are included in his compositions, yet the artist approached the owners of the buildings before taking his photographs. Says Miyazaki, “I’m seeking family history—both my own and that of the current owners—and time is often spent sharing our own uniquely American stories. Family histories intersect and are connected by the history of those buildings and by the lives lived within their walls.
The Chords of Memory and Camp Home run through May 4 at the James Watrous Gallery. For more information, visit wisconsinacademy.org.
Photos courtesy of the James Watrous Gallery.