Historicist: Anonymous Players on the Stage of History
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Historicist: Anonymous Players on the Stage of History

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Photographers Bill James, William James Sr., and Norman James, 1936. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3509

Often referred to as Canada’s first photojournalist, William James spent more than thirty years documenting Toronto and city life in all its varieties. An ever present, silent observer of a changing city, he was there to record the construction of public infrastructure and new buildings. James photographed the first airplane flights over the city and, a few years later, captured the first bird’s eye photos (and moving pictures) of Toronto from the back of a biplane. He recorded the changing landscape of the city’s outward expansion. But he was far more interested in capturing the city’s inhabitants in informal, unposed moments, such as workmen going about their toil and children at play. He entered the drawing rooms of the elite and photographed the city’s destitute.
But, unlike other pioneer photographers—like Arthur Goss, who was commissioned by Dr. Charles Hastings to chronicle the poverty of The Ward—James did not photograph in the service of a social cause. He photographed rich and poor alike, Christopher Hume writes in the introduction to William James’ Toronto Views (James Lorimer & Company Ltd, Publishers, 1999), but “[t]he city was their only common denominator. It was what brought them—and James—together. It was also what kept them apart.” James’s driving desire was, Hume continues, “to chronicle the city in all its complexity and contradictions.” In this, James and other early Toronto photographers were precursors—as Adam McDowell suggested in a March 21, 2009 National Post story—of today’s photobloggers.

Workmen laying last stone on the Canada Life Building, circa 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 116.

Born in tiny Walsall, England, in 1866, James spent his early adulthood as a rolling stone. He roamed to London, then to New Jersey and New England for a few years, employed in a leather-working shop and as an insurance agent along the way. After returning to Walsall, he married Clara Woolaston and, while raising his family over the next twelve years, became interested in amateur photography. Without any clear prospects, his family immigrated to Canada, arriving at Quebec in November 1906, and caught a train to Toronto.
At forty years of age, James worked as an insurance agent and as manager of the National Club, while spending his off-hours documenting his new city. He achieved early success by winning a photographic competition. The twenty-five-dollar prize was a financial boon for the James family, which would continue to grow in Toronto to include four sons and two daughters.
With a darkroom set up in the basement of the family home at 39 Huron Street—as there would be at successive homes on Leonard Avenue, Major Street, and Manning Avenue—James was in business as a freelance photographer by 1910. Lugging heavy equipment and a step-ladder—a necessity for the diminutive artist—James spent each morning photographing anything that appeared to be of interest, from merchants plying their trade to curio seekers rummaging through the remains of the 1904 Toronto Fire years afterward.

British immigrants from Kent, circa 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 107.

He wandered across the city on foot or by bicycle and later in the sidecar of a motorcycle piloted by one of his sons. In the afternoons, he toured the editorial offices of the city’s eight dailies, selling his pictures for a dollar or two apiece. He was also commissioned on occasion for weddings, photos from the air, and commercial photography. His photos also appeared in magazines such as Mayfair, Hunting in Canada, Chatelaine, Toronto World, and Canadian Horseman.

Farm woman charges girl for drink of water during first flight, Weston, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 73.

Although very technically accomplished as a photographer—and able to mentor the Turofsky brothers and his own sons in the trade—James was not fond of darkroom work. As his grand-daughter remembered, he tried to pass off most of the work in the darkroom to his sons. He was a good father for his family, but James was also said to be a strict, temperamental man who was stubbornly set in his ways, and he had trouble keeping his sons as business partners. In 1918, Joseph and William Jr. joined their father to form James & Sons. By 1922, however, Joseph had left for the U.S., and William Jr. had established his own photography business—H. James—in competition to his father’s. Norman James formed James & Son with his father in the late 1920s, but left five years later to join the full-time staff of the Star. James was a man with few close friends, according to his son Norman, but he was a core member of Toronto’s fraternity of pioneer photographers.
“He was one of the first photographers to recognize the value and potential impact of unposed, human-interest snapshots,” one observer noted. “This immediacy and informality resulted in candid, often humorous and sometimes dramatic documentary photos.” James had an uncanny knack for capturing anonymous citizens in candid, yet unremarkable, moments. And in the blink of a shutter, he instilled these daily activities, and the actors performing them, with historic gravity.
Although James’s livelihood relied on taking photos to meet the immediate needs of the daily news game, according to a tribute published in the Star after his death in November 1948, James also “delighted in taking photos that he felt would have historic interest.” He undoubtedly succeeded, as his photos, several thousand of which were deposited in the City of Toronto Archives, continue to be published regularly—including frequently as accompaniment to these columns.