Ektachrome moments: The color work of Ida Wyman
March 5, 2021 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
March 5, 2021
By Michael Abatemarco
The golden age of street photography, photojournalism, and documentary photography lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s. It was an era that saw the birth of a number of influential photography agencies and collectives, including Magnum, founded in Paris in 1947, and New Yorkâs Photo League, founded in 1936. Many of their number were among the most respected photographers of their day, including Magnumâs Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Photo Leagueâs Paul Strand and Arthur Leipzig.
Most of the images that came out of the era were in black and white, partly because color printing was more expensive and less stable, and most news agencies and magazines only printed in black and white. âColor negates all of photographyâs three-dimensional values,â claimed Cartier-Bresson.
Ida Wyman: East Harlem, 1947 in Color is a selection of 14 photographs on exhibit at Monroe Gallery drawn from a series called Lost Ektachromes. The photographer, who was a member of the league, came across the negatives sometime around 2010. They remained undeveloped until then because Wyman, who was proficient at printing in black and white, lacked the expertise to do her own color printing. She needed to find someone she could trust who could print them with fidelity and under her supervision.
âShe was already in her 80s,â says Wymanâs granddaughter Heather Garrison, who manages the estate. âShe always said she wanted to do an exhibit on this work. And as we catalogued it, we found additional pieces.â
Wyman (1926-2019) was âno slouch,â says Michelle Monroe, co-owner of Monroe Gallery of Photography, adding that she shot more than 100 assignments for Life magazine throughout her career as a freelance photographer. Her work exemplified the cooperativeâs focus on capturing the human condition in Americaâs urban and rural settings at mid-century.
âIt was really one of the first movements to use photography as a social documentary tool,â says gallery co-owner Sidney Monroe.
The work in the show includes portraits, street scenes, and candid images of people. Some are street vendors selling their wares. Some sit on stoops engaged in conversation, and some are merely walking or otherwise going about their day. As a whole, itâs a simple snapshot of life in the city.
The Key Maker, East Harlem, 1947
East Harlem was a neighborhood of immigrants and the working class poor. As a photographer, she had an ethos in line with that of the Photo League, although she was not yet a member at the time the photos were taken. And none of them were shot as an assignment but purely to indulge her own enthusiasm for the medium. Wyman was also experimenting with a new kind of film. Ektachrome was only developed in the early 1940s. The work languished in her archives, in part because Wyman never achieved the notoriety of her contemporaries until late in life, and she was never focused on showing her work publicly in galleries or museums.
âMs. Wyman â whose work for Life, Look and other magazines went largely unheralded for decades â discovered what she called a âspecial kind of happinessâ in photographing subjects like a little girl wearing curlers, a peddler hauling a block of ice from a horse-drawn cart and four boys holding dolls, pretending to be the plastic girlsâ fathers,â wrote Richard Sandomir in Wymanâs New York Times obituary (âIda Wyman, Whose Camera Captured Ordinary People, Dies at 93â). Perhaps thatâs because Wyman, like many of the subjects she photographed, came from a working-class family. Her parents were Jewish immigrants in Malden, Massachusetts, who later owned a small grocery store in the Bronx.
Soon after graduating from high school in 1943, Wyman started working in the mailroom at Acme Newspictures. Eventually, she was promoted to photo printer. Her intention was to spend a year working before starting nursing school. âShe was always fascinated by science and medicine,â Garrison says of Wyman, who got her first box camera at 14. But in the interim, her love of photography superseded other ambitions.
Wyman spent her earnings on film and processing. âOn her lunch breaks and in her spare time she just loved to walk the city and take pictures,â Garrison says. âThen she would have a body of work that she could show.â Determined to land assignments, she reserved these bodies of work to show to editors.
Wyman had no job security at Acme. When the men came back from the war, Wyman and women like her were out of a job.
However, her career in photography was just beginning.
The Shoe Shine Man, East Harlem, 1947
Over the course of the next six years, she worked as a freelancer, taking assignments for Fortune, Look, Life, and Parade, among other publications. âShe had the usual soft assignments, like for the Saturday Evening Post,â Michelle Monroe says. âIf there was a grocery store opening, âsend the woman.â She wasnât picky. She wanted the work. I think it was very hardscrabble working as a woman without the affiliation of a publication directly.â
But Wyman was motivated. Garrison says she landed assignments through sheer perseverance. âI give her a lot of credit, a young girl â 18, 19, 20, 21 â especially in a manâs world, walking into these offices and self-advocating,â Garrison says.
Wyman was encouraged to join the Photo League on the advice of her husband, photographer Simon Nathan, but in the early 1950s, the demands of family life temporarily curtailed her career. When she returned to photography in the 1960s, it was as a photographer in medical fields. She was chief photographer at the department of pathology at Columbia Universityâs College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1968 until 1983 when she returned to freelancing.
âHer varied assignments always focused on human interest stories, which have become a hallmark of her work,â Garrison says.
Thatâs what we see in her black-and-white photographs, but also in the Ektachromes. And like her monochromatic work, the contrasts are stark, the shadows deep and rich, befitting, perhaps, the work of one whoâs not used to shooting in color. The palette is muted, giving them the appearance of hand-colored photographs, a technique that was common since the early days of photography. And they weave a similar kind of nostalgic spell. But unlike hand-coloring, their ethereal and dreamlike quality, says Michelle Monroe, was due in part to the cityâs pollution.
The stringless banjo, East Harlem, 1947
âMost cities in, say, like the 1920s through the 1960s, were powered by coal,â she says. âThereâs a lot of diffused light. Coal hung around the lower city so much. Thereâs such a softening of the air from that particulate. Margaret Bourke-White taught us that â not directly, but in studying her work.â
But itâs the joyous aspects of the familiar and the sense of commonality that also make them captivating.
âShe always had an eye for people,â Garrison says. âShe loved to connect with people, and I think thatâs what made her photos so wonderful.â
Ida Wyman: East Harlem, 1947 in Color
Through April 11
Monroe Gallery of Photography, 112 Don Gaspar Ave., 505-992-0800, monroegallery.com