Thursday, May 21, 2015

Deep Focus, Part II: Joe Williamson, Reluctant Photographer

In our very first blog post we talked about the Joe Williamson Collection of maritime photographs which forms the heart of our archives. In researching the story we learned some interesting tidbits about the man who was an avid collector of photographs, a photographer in his own right, and a sailor, as well as one of the founders, and first president, of our historical society.

First and foremost Joe Williamson (1909-1994) was a man who loved ships. Almost every article and interview about him refers to the fact that he wasn't wild about photography itself. It was the output of his work that held his fascination. He loved developing film.

In 1979 intrepid newspaperwoman Lucile McDonald interviewed Joe for an article, reproduced here, that appeared in the December issue of the The Sea Chest, the quarterly journal of the historical society. Read it to hear, in Joe's own words, how he amassed his collection of maritime photographs, as well as stories of his early seafaring adventures.

This photo shows Joe, as a lad of six or so, on a bike along with his brothers Glen (left) and Paul, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of Leslie Williamson Lowell. As a young man Joe could be spotted riding his Indian Scout motorcycle on his rounds making deliveries for Bartell Drugs and other concerns.  

Ships and shops

By his late twenties, Joe had settled down somewhat and was selling maritime photographs from a waterfront shop he called the “Marine Salon.” Between 1937 and 1962 Joe operated a series of small shops, all on or near the Seattle waterfront.

PSMHS Research Coordinator Karl House recalls patronizing Joe’s shops as a youth:

I first met Joe Williamson because I used to buy pictures of tugboats from him when I was a young boy in elementary school, maybe eight or nine years old. I knew where it was, ‘cause you could go there on the bus. Well, I knew the shop because I’d been in with my dad before, and I knew it cost 50 cents to buy an 8 by 10 picture of a tug. Their photo salon was on the little viaduct that goes from First Avenue over the railroad tracks into the Colman Ferry Dock. That was the first Joe Williamson shop I was in. Subsequent to that he moved to a larger shop in the ferry dock itself and I bought a number of pictures over the years there. He was in the shop on the ferry dock for several years.

He was courteous and he would pull out pictures of various tugs, even though I only had enough money usually to buy one at a time. I’d pick out a picture and he’d sell it to me. If he wasn’t there, his wife would wait on me. She knew about everything that was in there, where the things were filed and so forth. Everybody on the waterfront pretty much knew a lot about what Joe did.

Ron Burke, long-time editor of the PSMHS journal The Sea Chest, also has fond memories of visiting Joe’s shop.

I grew up in Bremerton and whenever I came to Seattle [on the ferry], I would walk past Joe Williamson's Marine Photo Shop on the Marion Street pedestrian viaduct from the ferry dock. As a teenager and a Sea Scout in the 1940s, I got interested in maritime history and I used to drop by his shop and talk to him about it.  
One Christmas my grandmother gave me five dollars.  I took it to Joe's shop and started to order photos and told him to stop me when I reached the five dollar limit.  As I recall, I was able to buy eight photos, all of which I still have and [some of which I]  have used in The Sea Chest. 
Later, during my college summers, I worked on eight different ferries and ships and bought photos of each of them from Joe.  Also, in that work, I needed Coast Guard endorsements which required current photo ID cards and I always went to Joe to take my photos.

Indeed, Joe’s work extended beyond simply taking pictures and selling them. He was a creative entrepreneur, turning ships photos into Christmas cards, selling photos to various newspapers and periodicals, and collaborating with marine historian Jim Gibbs on a series of pictorial books.

During the same period he owned two ships, which he christened PhotoShip and PhotoQueen, respectively, and which he captained in his quest for adventure and photos. Karl House remembers them:

He had two different boats from which he took pictures. The first one was called PhotoShip and I’d say it was maybe a 30-foot boat. Then he bought a larger boat, called PhotoQueen, which was probably 50 or 55 feet. He could stay out on that boat for longer periods of time because it had all the cooking and live-aboard facilities that you needed on a boat that size. So he’d go as far out as the San Juan Islands and do some photo shoots there. Anyplace there was a photo opportunity.

Joe’s shop was always more than a collection of prints; it grew into a sort of gallery of maritime artifacts, including ships models, ships name plates, and other “relics and souvenirs” as the daily paper described it. One particular relic surfaced among Joe’s trove in 1947: part of the whistle from the well-beloved Bailey Gatzert, a sternwheeler which plied the waters of Puget Sound from 1890 to 1926. The familiar Bailey Gatzert whistle consisted of four chimes (some say five), one of which Joe holds above. Seattle Times Archives, December 7, 1947.  

Joe at MOHAI

Museum of History and Industry Curator of Photography Howard Giske met Joe shortly after his collection was acquired by PSMHS and conveyed to storage at the old MOHAI at Montlake. In his early 70s at that point, Joe traveled from his home on Bainbridge Island to lend a hand in the darkroom:

He lived in Winslow, not far from the ferry dock. He would walk down to the ferry dock, get on the boat, gab with old pals and cronies, I’m sure – he knew a lot of the ferryboat people. He would walk off at Colman Dock and would walk from there to MOHAI…to Montlake! He always had interesting stories, charming tales to tell about his walk to the museum that day. Just a chatty, lively fellow to have on the team.

PSMHS board member Pat Hartle remembers that Joe would also walk from the ferry dock to the Yankee Diner in Ballard for dinner meetings of the historical society. Each jaunt was a walk of about five miles in one direction!

Former Puget Maritime Board President Jim Cole, who led the charge to obtain the Williamson Collection, recalls Joe at MOHAI:

Of course, the collection was his child. He wanted to make sure everything was done right. It was probably hard to let go.

The Man with the Pipe

Joe is most often remembered as the man with a pipe in his mouth. Howard Giske recalls setting up some of Joe’s old darkroom equipment at MOHAI: 

He had always been a pipe smoker [so] we really had to work hard to get those lenses and condensers and things all cleaned up. He loved the darkroom work, he said. He really wasn’t all that interested in the photography and the camera work, but he’d smoke his pipe back there [in the darkroom.] A cloud of smoke! You couldn't catch anything on fire really, but he would kind of pollute the air with that old pipe. In a lot of the pictures taken of him you see him with his pipe.

Joe (center) with the other founding members of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society in 1948. From left: Jim Gibbs, Tom Sandry, Joe, Bob Leithead, and Austen Hemion. Photo, PSMHS.

-- Eleanor Boba


  • The corporate records of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.
  • McDonald, Lucile. “The Famous Williamson Photo Collection.” The Sea Chest December 1979.
  • Hemion, Austen. “Joe D. Williamson.” The Sea Chest June 1994.
  • The Seattle Times Historic Archive, various articles.
  • Oral history interviews with Jim Cole (2015), Karl House (2015), and Howard Giske (2015.)
  • Email communication with Ron Burke (2015) and Pat Hartle (2015).
  • Special thanks to Joe’s great niece, Leslie Williamson Lowell, for use of a family photo.