The amazing photography of Stephen Joseph Thompson (1864-1929)

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photo by Stephen Joseph Thompson
Cordova Street looking west in 1898 with the Dunn-Miller building. Courtesy  CVA

I’m obsessed with a photographer named Stewart Joseph Thompson. I became aware of him a few weeks back when Pamela Post sent me a photo he’d taken of Georgia and Burrard Streets in the 1890s. Then, last week I found a photo he took the day after the fire destroyed New Westminster in 1898, including Thompson’s own Columbia Street studio.

Photo by Stephen Joseph Thompson
Columbia Street, New Westminster after the fire 1898. Courtesy CVA

According to Jim Wolf’s A photographic history of New Westminster, the Ontario-born Thompson was a talented artist who trained in Toronto, Montreal and New York. He was 21 when he moved to New Westminster in 1886 and partnered up with the Bovill brothers. Many of his early photos were commissioned portraits, but he was also shooting and selling landscapes—mostly along the CPR line.

Stephen Joseph Thompson
Stephen Joseph Thompson, courtesy NWPL 2927

By 1888 he had his own studio in the Hamley Block on Columbia Street, selling “beautiful views of B.C. mountain scenery and city views for souvenirs.”

Photo by Stephen Joseph Thompson
Point Ellice bridge disaster May 26, 1896

Thompson was in Victoria on May 26, 1896 when a streetcar overflowing with 143 people off to the Queen Victoria birthday festivities, plunged through the Point Ellis bridge killing 55 and injuring many more. Evidently, he saw the disaster as a business opportunity, and took out an ad in the Vancouver News-Advertiser.

Thompson married Constance Victoria Clute In 1897. They moved to Vancouver, opened a studio at 610 West Hastings, and put an assistant in charge of the New West business. The following year, his New West studio and thousands of glass plate negatives were destroyed in the Great Fire.

Photo by Stephen Joseph Thompson
Vancouver from Mount Pleasant 1898. Courtesy CVA

The city directories show the Thompsons living at various addresses in the upscale West End. He was listed as a photographer and art supplier until around 1911. After that, Thompson joined the ranks of property speculators and set himself up as a realtor, eventually moving into the Standard Building at 510 West Hastings.

From the 1909 Vancouver City Directory

In 1927, the tanking economy likely drove him back to photography. That year the city directory lists Thompson as the manager of Photo-Arts on Dunsmuir, and his home address the Washington Court at Thurlow and Nelson.

He died in 1929.

Photo by Stephen Joseph Thompson
Granville Street looking north east from the first Hotel Vancouver at Georgia in 1905. Shows Hudson Bay, Bank of Montreal and the spire of Holy Rosary Cathedral. CVA

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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  1. Thompson was indeed a fine photographer. His best work is transcendent, rather than merely documentary. As was said about the great French photographer Eugène Atget, “he knew where to stand.”

    He also knew what he was doing. For those who can detect the technical triumph of his work, it is superb.

    Had Thompson worked in Paris, perhaps his name would now enjoy similar prominence as his French contemporary. Lucky for us that he turned his eye (and lenses) on our beloved West Coast.

  2. Photo Arts was the business where my father, Jan de Haas, found employment in 1952; then located on Hornby St North of Dunsmuir St.

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