PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BILL SMILEY ARCHIVES Prince Alberts photographer, William James

On September 4th, 1890, a large crowd of excited people were clustered around what is now Third Avenue West and 17th Street. Amongst the crowd was a young man, not yet twenty years of age, and newly arrived in the community. While the other members of the crowd expected to carry the memory of the day’s events in their minds, the young man planned to capture it more permanently. William James, having developed an interest in amateur photography, would use his camera to record permanently the arrival of the first train to come to Prince Albert.
That first picture would be followed by several thousand more, taken over the course of half a century, in a community and area of the province for which William James had an inordinate love. Between the local Bill Smiley Archives and the Saskatchewan Archives Board, between 3,600 and 4,000 of his prints and negatives have been collected, catalogued, and stored (over 1,000 of them in our archives).
James had been born December 23rd, 1870 in Howick Township, Huron County, Ontario near the town of Fordwich. His father, William senior, and his mother, Maria, were both Irish Protestants. Originally residing in Perth, Lanark County, William senior was a blacksmith and ran a machine shop where he designed his own tools. It is possible that the creativity shown by William the photographer may have been inherited from his father. He may also have developed his penchant for embracing new ideas, business ventures, and gadgetry as a result of his father’s approach to life.
The elder James had “come west” when he enlisted in Lord Wolseley’s Red River Expedition in 1870, the year following Riel’s Red River Resistance. For his services, he had received a service medal and a land grant. He either declined or traded the land grant, returning to his Ontario home shortly before the birth of his son. William senior then opened a wagon and carriage-making establishment which, according to data contained in the Dominion Census, was a successful independent small business. But, given the family’s future endeavours, some spark for life in the west must have remained, only waiting to be kindled anew.
Little is known of William James’ early life. It is known that he had worked as a teenager in a sawmill in Fordwich. What prompted him to move west when he was nineteen years old is unknown. Family members later suggested that it was simply “an itchy foot that took over from time to time throughout his life.” As to why he chose Prince Albert, again it is merely supposition on the part of those who knew him. His experience in a sawmill, and the fact that Prince Albert had a lumber industry, seems to have been the deciding factor.
James appears to have settled well into Prince Albert. He gained employment at the James Sanderson sawmill and, when his family chose to follow him west in 1893, William senior also obtained employment there. Although the son soon found other employment, his father remained working at the sawmill until his death in 1911.
That first photograph taken in Prince Albert was considered by those who knew these things to be a very professional shot. It caused people to question whether James had received some training prior to leaving Fordwich. Had he been apprenticed to a photographer in Fordwich? However, as there were no photographers in that community, it would appear to have been impossible. Perhaps it was merely beginner’s luck!
When and why James became determined to make a living through his photography hobby is still one more unanswered question. On being questioned about this, family members could only respond that “he was noted for being a bit of a gambler and he wasn’t afraid of taking a chance.”
By the mid-1890s, James was working with an itinerant photographer by the name of W.J. Jackson. In 1894 they opened a studio on Nisbet Street (later the unit block of what became 8th Street East and now part of the parking lot for Plaza 88). Their images were issued under the name of James and Jackson. Interestingly, their advertising suggested that the building was intended partly for a photographic gallery and partly for a barber shop. This partnership lasted only briefly, as Jackson left the business and the community in 1895, a departure which was lamented in an October 1895 issue of the Saskatchewan Times.
James’ career as a photographer ebbed and flowed with the economy of the Prince Albert community. If the economy was booming, his services were in great demand. When there was a downturn in the economy, his business would falter. As a result, James found the need to resort to being an itinerant photographer himself. He would travel to the Battlefords by steamship, to Saskatoon and Regina by train, and to other locations via horse and carriage (the latter likely constructed by his father). At one point he had branch studios on Saskatoon, Rosthern, Duck Lake, and Battleford, as well as one in Indian Head which was likely managed by his brother Alfred.
Although these trips to other communities were profitable for James, it took a toll on his local Prince Albert business. As a result, in September 1900, James returned to the business he had once shunned. He established the Phoenix Barber Shop and Bath House in a small shop adjoining his studio. Here his previous amateurish barbering skills were to be advertised as “hair cutting and shaving second to none” and “patronized by the best people in town”. With the studio beside this business enterprise, James was able to ensure people were well presented when they sat for their photographs.
This did not seem to resolve the income issue, however, and James found it necessary to rent his premises to the large Winnipeg photography firm of Steele and Company who were attempting to build their business by branching out to other western communities. Their interest in Prince Albert did not last long, however, and they soon disappeared from the local scene.
This led James to form another partnership, this time with Theodore Charmbury who was, at the time, serving a photographic apprenticeship in Aldershot, England. By February 1901, Charmbury had arrived in Prince Albert and was working with James. He brought with him the latest techniques and art applications, as well as being able to manage the local business while James travelled to his other studios. From James, Charmbury learned the business of itinerant photography. Although the partnership soon ended, the two photographers had become, and remained, good friends. Eventually Charmbury moved to Saskatoon, where he established himself in an impressive career.
Too old to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I, James concentrated on photographing members of the Canadian forces. After the war, with the increased taxes imposed by the nearly bankrupt city, the business climate in Prince Albert was such that James found it necessary to sell his business. He turned to work as a travelling salesman to support his family, selling everything from men’s suits to jewelry, keeping his hand in the photography business by taking photos in the communities he visited.
Throughout his photographic career, James concentrated on two main types of photography. Like his first local photograph of the first train into Prince Albert, his pictures were of a documentary nature. He recorded, unaltered and accurately, places and events. Such photographs were desirable as a keepsake for the people who were there, and remain to this date a record of events of historic importance.
Secondly, James earned a reputation for his portraiture. Like all nineteenth century portraits, they were directed and posed. But James’ work had a quality which captured and revealed the character of the person sitting for him. With children, he used puppets to relax them, and these photographs showed great spontaneity.
James also used the Cirkut 8 camera to take panoramic photographs. Some of these, which measured eight inches high and as long as eight feet, are treasured by collectors, archivists, and those who are intrigued by the past.
James was only one of two Saskatchewan photographers who produced stereo photographs. Used with a stereo-picture viewer, these photographs can provide a three dimensional image for people wanting to get a good idea of views from the past, particularly scenic views.
James had married Maudie Rebecca Courtney in 1904, and it is likely that she influenced him to remain in Prince Albert, rather than relocating when business fell off. Together, they had four daughters, one of whom (Norma) worked closely with her father when he returned to the local photographic scene in 1927. She also took over the business when he retired in 1935, running it until 1957.
James died of a heart attack on September 9th, 1944, and was buried with full Masonic rites at St. Mary’s cemetery. Here he lies next to the graves of his father and mother. Maudie Rebecca joined him there twelve years later.