Portrait of Hella Heyman from her 1940 application to Black Mountain College. Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.
Hella Hammid, Bathing, 1988, vintage gelatin silver print. Private collection.
Hella Heyman Hammid, (Student Fall 1940) (b.1921-d.1992)
Born to a Jewish family in Kronberg, Germany, Hella Hilde Heyman immigrated to the US in 1937, starting out in New York City and then moving to Los Angeles. While in California, she helped her mother with her work as a photographer, and assisted the painter and art dealer Galka E. Scheyer with classes and exhibitions. Ms. Scheyer, who was acquainted with Josef Albers, served as a reference for Hella when she applied to BMC, and Hella was readily accepted.
During her semester at BMC, she took courses in American History, Economic Thinking, Dramatics I, and Creative Writing. This last one, taught by Bob Wunsch, she reflected at the end of the semester was “THE course which really meant Black Mountain College to me […] The discovery of things around me, and then the discovery of words and ways to express these things and experiences on paper […] I have awakened since I have taken this course, and for that I will never be able to be grateful enough.”
While she was enthusiastic about her experience there and sad to leave, in December 1940 she asked for a temporary leave of absence due to financial difficulties. Ultimately, Hella was unable to return, but stayed in NYC, determined to make the best of her situation (“It’s a shame I can’t return to BMC, but I’m afraid I am on my own now and have to work at the same time than [sic] going to school,” she wrote the registrar.)
Back in New York, she made the acquaintance of the avant-garde film director Maya Deren, and began assisting her on films such as At Land (which has another BMC connection—John Cage) and Ritual in Transfigured Time. Another collaborator was Maya Deren’s then-husband, the filmmaker Alexander Hammid, whom Hella married in 1948.
As a freelance photographer, Hella contributed to publications including Life, Ebony, The Sun, and the New York Times, as well as to the influential 1955 exhibition The Family of Man at MoMA, alongside a handful of other BMC photographers. She was particularly adept at creating empathetic photographs of children and women throughout all stages of life, in joyful and difficult situations. A retrospective exhibition of her work, “Osud Ženy / Feminine Fate,” was held at Artinbox Gallery in the Czech Republic in 2015-2016.
In addition to her artistic career, Hella’s fascinating life included bringing her abilities in creative expression to an entirely different realm: in the 1970s and 1980s, she drew and sculpted images from her mind’s eye as part of experiments in “remote viewing” (paranormal extrasensory perception), working with Russell Targ and others at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), sponsored by the CIA. These experiments (and the government’s interest in using remote viewing for military and domestic intelligence operations) were scientifically discredited, and the documents have been declassified for decades. Nonetheless, as her former colleague Targ once described, Hella “had spent most of her life looking at the world through the viewfinder of her Leica,” so this unusual detour was perhaps an “apropos extension of her life’s visual orientation.”