How Jim Thompson Became Knoxville's Landmark Photographer

And how he helped create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This year, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park celebrates its 75th anniversary, and it seems an appropriate time to remember the cadre of Knoxvillians who spearheaded the effort. Several of their names are on mountains: Mt. Chapman, Mt. Davis, Davis Ridge, Morton Overlook, Maloney Point. One is also on the Knoxville highway that leads to the mountains. And one name is only on a photographic supply shop on Middlebrook Pike.

It's the locally familiar name of a 20th-century photographer who ran his successful photo-supply shop for several decades. Other cities have their landmark photographers, whose framed work graces restaurant walls and fund-raising calendars. Jim Thompson specialized in photographing places, with a master's eye for contrast and perspective. People pore over his crisp photographs of Gay Street, portrayed across many stages in his long life. But his world took in more than the city of Knoxville. Some authorities suspect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park might never have become a reality without his work.

Earlier this year, Thompson Photo closed its West Knoxville camera and processing store on North Peters Road. Their old downtown store closed a few years ago. It's a tough time for a lot of businesses, and the digital age has been especially challenging for old-line film-processing shops. Thompson has seen some cutbacks since the days when they operated four "Snap Shop" locations in town. But Thompson Photo isn't shutting down; their flagship store, on a block of Middlebrook near downtown (it used to be part of University Avenue), still employs 15 people. If our visits there are any guide, they're still getting a good bit of trade, both in camera equipment sales and processing prints--they're proud of their "light jet" which allows them to print giant photographs. It's a family business, still run by Anne Thompson, president and great-granddaughter of the founder. Their logo outside includes a year, "1902."

That was about when 22-year-old Jim Thompson started taking pictures for clients and developing them in the basement of his family home on old Temperance Street, east of downtown.

Until then he'd seemed to be well on his way toward a career as an architect in this industrial city experiencing an urban boom. Though he had little formal education—he didn't go to high school—he had served an apprenticeship for George Barber, East Tennessee's best-known architect of suburban homes. Thompson and his father, Mortimer, worked as draftsmen for Barber's Depot Street office when Barber designs were appearing in residential neighborhoods coast to coast.

Mortimer Thompson was also a portrait artist—several of the official portraits of Knoxville mayors in the City County Building are his. Few were surprised when his son showed interest in the new technologies developing around photography. Thompson would later admit his career was inspired partly by a spectacular photo opportunity: the 1897 fire which consumed a block of Gay Street. The catastrophe might have inspired many amateur photographers, but before Eastman-Kodak's introduction of the consumer friendly Brownie, 16-year-old Jim Thompson was one of the few Knoxvillians who knew how to take a picture. His earliest known photographs, of the smoldering ruins on the 400 block of Gay, ran in the newspapers, and are still famous, framed curios in downtown restaurants.

Newspapers bought his photos then, but his work for Barber convinced him there was an untouched market for commercial photography. His first regular client was the huge C.B. Atkin Mantel Co.

Soon he gave up architecture and went to work for optician O.C. Wiley, who sold optical supplies at the corner of Clinch and Walnut; young Thompson was in charge of Wiley's photographic department. A new disaster presented Thompson another unusual photo opportunity in 1904. At New Market, between Knoxville and Morristown, two Southern passenger trains collided, killing more than 50 people. Knoxville's most vivid news of the event was Thompson's photos of it, posted in display windows downtown. The same year, he attended the St. Louis World's Fair, where his photographs of Knoxville's booming marble business were on display.

In March 1909, the young man set up backstage at the brand-new Bijou Theatre. When the curtain opened, he surprised the elegant opening-night crowd with an exploding-powder flash. The image he took of the audience members, many of them laughing at the novelty, is famous. The curtain closed immediately, like a shutter; the audience didn't get to see that Thompson, wounded in the face by a bit of tin in the explosion, was covered with blood. He said it didn't hurt.

By 1911, he was successful enough on his own to build his own studio on Lowry Street at East Church. In 1913, he attended the National Conservation Exposition at Chilhowee Park, and photographed it; its themes of preserving the region's natural resources was a progressive idea that appealed to him and others of his generation. His grandson, Jim Thompson, says the photographer understood his profession's importance when one of the Exposition's visitors, William Jennings Bryan, U.S. Secretary of State and one of the most popular politicians in America, took Thompson's direction. "What do I do now?" he asked the young photographer. "Where do I stand?"

Like most young men he was enthralled with the latest technologies, and by the time of World War I, he was making some motion pictures. The earliest known motion picture with a recognizable Knoxville scene is a Thompson movie of a horse-drawn fire engine leaving the old firehall on Commerce Street in 1915. It was an era of innovation. From 1915 to 1925, Thompson experimented with aerial photography, panoramic pictures, color photography, even trick photography.

For a time he partnered with his younger brother Robin, just back from World War I. Assisting them was a staff of 20, some of them specialists. Thompson's reputation was national; he was for a while president of the Photographers Association of America, despite his reputation for being difficult to work with; among colleagues, he could seem domineering. Robin Thompson, an easier-going guy, split off to start a commercial photography concern, with his work in advertisements in national magazines. For a time, the two brothers were independently famous as photographers. In 1929 a Knoxville Journal reporter explained their local neglect: "because they were not ‘queer,' and unapproachable and eccentric, but were good sports and likeable young fellows, Knoxville was a long time in recognizing that they were artists endowed with a touch of genius."

A 1921 Journal article declared Thompson's "the finest equipped and most complete of any studio south of Chicago and St. Louis. Not even Cincinnati or Atlanta has such a studio." Thompson had clients as far away as New York, and was, for a time, the regional representative for Pathé, the newsreel producer. When asked what kept him in Knoxville, Thompson would reply, "There's no city like this."

In 1925, he began filming football games. He was not a fan, and had to have the game explained to him by the University of Tennessee's young coach, Bob Neyland, a career army man who'd experimented with game films at West Point. Football photography was controversial in the 1920s—coaches feared photographs might reveal strategy. Thompson upset at least one opponent—the Georgia Bulldogs tried to block Thompson's cameras at Shields Watkins Field. They were furious about photography, which was banned in some stadiums. Georgia didn't play UT again for more than a decade. Thompson always heard he was the reason.

He never considered himself a historian or chronicler of his times; almost all of his shots in town were for clients. That's why there are lots of Thompson photographs of Gay Street, where shopkeepers could pay for publicity shots, but very few of other picturesque parts of town, like the riverfront, or Central Street, an avenue of whorehouses, cocaine shops, and saloons, the parts of town which might have been most interesting to an adventurous journalist. Thompson, of Temperance Street, was a teetotaler himself, and seems not to have been attracted to the darker sides of city life.

Thompson was adventurous in other ways, though, and his interest in the nearby mountains would put him in the center of one of Knoxville's noblest projects.

"There is one job of outside photography which Thompson Co. has been doing at a loss, but which likely will prove worthwhile later on," went a News Sentinel profile in 1927. "This is their work as photographers for the Smoky park. They have furnished virtually all park publicity scenes." The Great Smokies National Park was still seven years away from its official opening in 1934; Americans knew the Smokies mainly from Thompson photographs.

Previously known mainly to mountaineers and men involved in the timber industry, the Smokies had long been terra incognita even to Knoxvillians, who had long been content to admire the mountains from a distance. Before the 1920s, just getting to the mountains from Knoxville often entailed a two-day trip—and that was for the few who had automobiles.

Among the young Knoxvillians who grew preoccupied with the mountains, a disproportionate number were young geniuses in the new technologies. Automobiles, then mainly accessible to sportsmen who had an interest in mechanics, made mountain travel possible. The Knoxville Automobile Club was behind the park movement as early as 1923. Likewise, modern photography would play a role in exposing the Smokies' potential.

Jim Thompson was already a little ahead of the curve. Mortimer Thompson was one of very few Knoxvillians who had any experience with the Smokies. A close friend of Charles Christopher Krutch, the impressionist whose early landscapes of the Smokies are prized, Mortimer often took his family into the Smokies, when it was still a freakishly unusual way to spend a long weekend.

Jim Thompson was taking pictures in the Smokies as early as 1913. He sometimes carried as much as 75 pounds of photographic equipment into the mountains, relying on friends to help pack his equipment into the mountains.

Thompson was a charter member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. By 1924 he was official photographer for the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association (GSMCA), the Knoxville-based club that drove the park movement in its earliest days.

Meanwhile, a vigorous rival movement, centered in the Asheville area, pushed the idea of making the Grandfather Mountain and rugged Linville Gorge areas a national park.

The Smokies idea was then more Knoxville-based, originated by Annie Davis and her husband, Willis—along with pharmacist David Chapman, financier Ben Morton, and others. Willis Davis had proposed the idea directly to the Secretary of the Interior who, overwhelmed with other regional proposals, formed the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee, a five-member group of mostly northeastern conservationists, among them Rep. Henry Wilson Temple of Pennsylvania. The GSMCA tried and failed to get the group to meet in Knoxville; the sentiment was such that the Knoxvillians felt lucky when the committee agreed to receive these Smokies advocates at their hotel room in Asheville. They knew it would take a tough job of persuasion, because the committee already seemed to be tilting toward anointing Grandfather Mountain. And there wouldn't be two new national parks in the Southern Appalachians.

In July 1924 several Knoxvillians, including Willis Davis, David Chapman, Congressman J. Will Taylor, and Jim Thompson, set off for Asheville. Before they left, Chapman told Thompson, "I want you to put all the pictures you can into the back seat of my car." He wanted to set them up in the hotel room where they'd be meeting with the Washington committee.

"So we did," Thompson recalled many years later. "We could hardly get in the room for the pictures."

He recalled that the committee's chairman said, "Whoa! I want to see where these pictures were made. We're not going to decide until we see. If these pictures are fakes, I want to know it. If they're genuine, I want to see these places."

Carlos Campbell, a prominent early member of the Conservation Association, wrote what's considered a definitive history, Birth of a National Park (1960). "Not merely were the Thompson pictures used as valuable aids in those early days, but their use and value—and the infinite variety of subject matter—grew with the park movement," wrote Campbell, who didn't necessarily owe Thompson any favors. The two were opponents on some major issues concerning the park, and didn't always get along. "It requires no stretch of one's imagination to realize that without the help of these magnificent views there might have been no national park in the Great Smokies."

Campbell mentions no other photographer so intimately involved in the foundation of the national park. But another pioneering photographer has been getting much more attention lately. Thompson has a rival in the person of a man known to Americans as George Masa, who may be achieving his greatest fame 76 years after his death.

About the same age as Thompson, the Japanese photographer came to America as a young man and around 1915 settled in Asheville, originally working as a bellhop at the Grove Park Inn. He befriended Horace Kephart, the environmental journalist who out-Thoreau'ed Thoreau, leaving his family in St. Louis to dwell alone in the Smokies. Kephart became the bard of the mountains through his 1913 classic, Our Southern Highlanders. Published the same year as Knoxville's National Conservation Exposition, it stirred national interest in the Smokies and the people who lived there.

This September, a major Ken Burns documentary series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, will outline the history of the parks. In it, the story of the Smokies national-park movement is told mostly through the efforts of Kephart and Masa, these two outsiders who settled in North Carolina. Masa, the Burns documentary relates, used his photographs to broadcast to the greater world the beauty of the interior of the Smokies. Thompson is unmentioned.

The gorgeously shot documentary, which has been widely previewed, perhaps combined with a 2003 documentary called The Mystery of George Masa, has already been effective in touting Masa as the Smokies' primary photographer. The online resource Wikipedia is, if nothing else, an interesting gauge of popular perceptions. For the last few months, at least, the Wikipedia entry about the Great Smoky Mountains mentions no Knoxvillians in regard to the development of the park, but states, "Travel writer Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa were instrumental in fostering the development of the park."

Masa, more eccentric, surprising, and mysterious than Thompson, the Knoxville businessman who died a prosperous old man in Sequoyah Hills, may make a better story. He does earn respect as a capable photographer who devoted much of his life to the Smokies. But the Burns documentary preview at the Tennessee a few weeks ago left some Knoxvillians wondering whether, all these years, we had misunderstood the influence of our own heroes in the development and promotion of the Smokies as a place worth saving.

A day in the library redeems Thompson's importance in proving to America the Smokies's worthiness of preservation. Most of the critical early publications about the Smokies park movement, even some associated with Kephart, used Thompson photographs.

In 1925, after the Knoxville delegation's surprise success with the Interior Department's Committee, the North Carolina Parks Commission got on board and published a large brochure touting the idea, with an essay by Kephart. The publication was a Tarheel project, printed in Asheville—but all the photographs are credited to the "Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, Knoxville" of which Jim Thompson was photographer.

One of the first national magazine features about the proposed Great Smoky Mountains National Park—according to the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, it's the very first—was written by Horace Kephart in the then-well-known progressive monthly World's Work, in April 1926. Illustrating Kephart's poetic prose, almost entirely about the natural features of the Smokies, were 20 photographs, several of them striking, of then-little-known Smokies sites like Mount LeConte, Rainbow Falls, and the Chimneys; "unnamed" peaks and waterfalls demonstrate how early it was in the park's history. It appeared just weeks before President Coolidge signed the bill authorizing a Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All 20 photographs are attributed to Thompson.

In fact, in most of the known national magazine features about the Smokies in the 1920s—in magazines from Country Life to Nature to The New York Times Magazine—the photographs of the Smokies are attributed entirely to Thompson.

Steve Cotham, director of the McClung Historical Collection and author of a recent photographic history of the Smokies, says he has seen some fine photographs by Masa. One of the earliest guides to the Smokies, in the early '30s, was illustrated entirely by Masa photographs.

Masa died in 1933, without family or close friends. Thompson had just opened his new Snap Shop on Gay Street. He lived for another four decades, remaining intimately involved in many issues regarding the mountains, and enjoying, until his death at the age of 96, his reputation as the seminal photographer of the Great Smokies.

In his later years, just outside the park, he kept a mountain cabin he called Shangri-la; his grandson, a former executive at Thompson Photo whose name is also Jim Thompson, has made a cleaner break, splitting his time between rural homes in Campbell County and southwestern Virginia.

In 1961, Masa got a knob named for him. Thompson never did. "He was irascible, sometimes a hard guy to get along with," his grandson, Jim Thompson, says. "Maybe he pissed somebody off."