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Jim Chambers

Humanity stilled.

Jim Chambers is a Hamilton-based photographer who has been active in the local arts scene since the 1960s. He has worked in numerous arts organizations such as Head Photographer at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Staff Photographer at the Royal Ontario Museum, Coordinator of the Photography Department and professor at Humber College and founder of the Toronto Photographers’ Co-operative (now TPW).

Jim Chambers, "The Best Man", 1967. Winner of the International Snapshot award advertised in the Hamilton Spectator.

From a young age, Chambers developed a passion for photography, explaining:

I have been a photographer for most of my 68 years. My dad bought me a camera when I was eight years old and showed me how to develop film and prints. It was magic in the red glow of the darkroom lamp, the heady smell of the chemicals, the closeness of my dad, the image mystically appearing in the tray… I was hooked then and I still am today (HA&L, 1/60th of a second).

However, he never considered the possibility of photography as a career. After submitting a quick snapshot from his cousin’s wedding to the International Snapshot award advertised in the Hamilton Spectator on a whim, he unexpectedly won first place. He took the prize of $4000, quit his job and applied as a mature student to McMaster University.

Chambers began his lifelong career in the arts while studying Fine Arts at McMaster University in 1968. Here, he met Bryce Kanbara and the two young artists grew close, sharing similar philosophies about community and art. In 1975, Chambers assisted Kanbara with the founding of Hamilton Artists Inc. He became heavily involved with the Inc. and exhibited his photographs and mixed media works throughout the years, including at the infamous ‘Lunch Bucket Show’ in 1976.

Chambers’ early street photography of life in the city was shown at the ‘James Street North Photo Show ’ exhibition at the Inc in 1976 as a tactic to draw in neighbours that would otherwise have little interest in the arts. Presenting images of residents and businesses in the North End created a direct correlation between community and the arts. In a review on the Inc., Chambers work was given a shout out:

In this quietly impressive group of pictures, he managed to record some of the people and places of this tough, stimulating street without the arch formalism that so many of his Rochester-influenced fellow artists bring to such subjects, and without exploiting the people of the area as mere specimens of the ‘picturesque’. Particularly imbued with feeling for the humanity of the subjects are his shots of the cash register girl in the “European art gifts” store, and the Black family in the laundromat across the street (Barry Lord. Artmagazine, Dec/Jan 76/77, pg. 44).

Jim Chambers, cash register girl in the “European art gifts” store, James St. North, c. 1976.

Founding the Toronto Photographers’ Co-operative in 1977, Chambers was inspired by his time spent in Hamilton helping Kanbara found the Inc. He states:

It was Bryce’s vision of community involvement in the arts and the model of the storefront gallery that inspired me to launch a similar project in Toronto. I have happy memories of the Hamilton Artists Inc.; of the people involved in the early years, the bar across the street where we spent so many hours re-inventing art (or so we thought) and the excitement that I am sure Bryce felt in Hamilton with the Inc. and me in Toronto with TPW, that you were truly involved in something worthwhile that reached out to the local community, and filled a void with something new, that allowed and inspired creative people to come together to discuss and make art. (Defining the Site, Inc. publication 1995)

Chambers dedication to the advancement of the photographic arts extended beyond Hamilton into creating the one of the longest running and most successful artist-run photography, film and video-centered galleries in Canada. The TPW continues to actively support community and emerging artists, true to Chambers’ vision. Having educated young artists through his work at Humber College as well as preserving art history through his work at the AGO and ROM, Chambers not only captures his own striking images but has lived to share photography with the world at large.

Words and Pictures
by Jim Chambers
Hastings, Barbados, 2015

For the last fifty years I have been taking photographs of everything from Waste Treatment plants to Rodin Sculptures and Dancers and Actors to company executives. Basically with buying a house, raising two kids, along with various cats, and dogs I photographed anything people would give me money to photograph. I was a Commercial Photographer but it’s not commercial work that got me into photography, it was an insatiable desire to know the world around me and connect with that world. Unfortunately I was quite shy, particularly around women, and tended to pursue my weird obsessions on my own.

Jim Chambers at the Co-op, c.1970s.

For a while I wanted to be a geologist and spent hours scaling the rocks of the escarpment that in Hamilton is called the mountain. Then it was chemistry and I mixed every bottle of whatever my parents had in the house and produced, I am sure, a toxic mix that gave off an acrid smell and made my eyes water particularly when I heated it up with my Bunsen burner. Then I tried to make a rocket out of soup cans glued together and filled with a mixture of saltpeter and sugar which when lit gave off a stunning purple flame but left the soup cans melting on the launch pad. While all this was going on my Dad was developing photographs in his makeshift darkroom behind the furnace. I would watch him developing film, by hand in a tray and miraculously ghostly images would appear on the film. The film was orthochromatic which meant it could be developed by red light. I was completely entranced by what seemed to be magic. That coupled with the heady smells of the developer and fixer and closeness to my quiet, undemonstrative father was magic and the magic has never left me.

Early on I knew I wanted to photograph people; interesting people, exotic people and to my amazement I found that people were receptive to me when I had a camera in my hand. It was my passport into their lives, something I couldn’t have accomplished without my camera. In the late 1950’s at the Hamilton Library, leafing through the pages of US Camera monthly, I discovered the photographers that continue to inspire me today; Dorthea Lange, Cartier Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Eugene Smith, and many more. Like so many teen-age dreamers I wanted to travel the world, photograph people and get paid for it. It didn’t quite happen like that but eventually I did travel the world and photograph the people and places I dreamed of when I was a kid but I did a lot of other things before that happened.

Jim Chambers at his exhibition 'James Street North Photo Show ’ at the Inc., 1976.

In high school I was guided into the shop courses because my dismal academic record seemed to indicate that I was doomed to a life of digging ditches or running machinery of some sort, so in grade ten I transferred to the shop course majoring in drafting and minoring in typing, the only thing I learned that actually helped me, like writing this story for example. But shop was just as unattainable to me as my academic subjects. I sucked at machine shop and jammed the lathes whenever I used them. I liked Auto mechanics because at the age of 14 I bought an old 51 ford from my aunt that sat in my father’s driveway for years. I got pretty good at taking it apart and painting it various colours like turquoise and white and bubblegum pink and silver, with house paint of course, whatever my parents had in the basement, I wasn’t discerning, but for the rest of the courses I was pretty well a wipe out but somehow managed at the age of 19 to graduate from grade 12 with about one mark above passing. I think the teachers wanted to get rid of me. I wasn’t any trouble just bored and I didn’t see how any of this was going to give me the exciting life I craved, so like so many of my academically challenged friends I went off to the steel miles which in 1965 employed at least 2/3rds of the citizens of Hamilton, Ontario, The Steel City. That lasted about two years. I worked as a brick mason’s labourer in the Open Hearth, a general labourer in the cold rolled steel line. I shoveled bright metal stuff into the melting pot of the galvanize line. But I was always being transferred all over the place (I wonder why!). Next I was a yard laborer for the RR lines and finally I got my dream job; door opener for the rolled steel storage warehouse. My main problem with that job was staying awake during the night shift trying not to burn down the wooden shed I was in in the dead of winter heated by a potbelly stove. I didn’t burn the shed down but I did set my chair on fire by leaving it leaning against the stove while I went for a 3am snack! Luckily nobody found out but I took it as a sign and quit the steel industry to try my luck at something else. I applied for a job as a draughtsman and got one with Ian Martin Associates who hired me out to unsuspecting client who were under the illusion that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t, of course. I could draw a straight line and I was pretty good at lettering but as far as electrical knowledge went, which was a prerequisite for the job, I was pretty shaky. Again somehow, no one ever found out I didn’t know what I was doing, but for years after, a left drafting, I would check out transformer stations in remote corners of Ontario that I had designed and see if they were still standing. All the while I was trying these various occupations I was taking photographs and still dreaming of travelling the world as a documentary photographer. In 1966, on a whim, I entered a photograph I took of a little old many standing behind the wedding party of my cousin Ian’s wedding as they stood outside of St Paul’s Church in Hamilton. It won first prize in the Hamilton Spectator’s snapshot awards contest, and miraculously it won second prize in National Geographic’s international snapshots contest. I had the choice of a two-week all expenses paid trip to South America or $4,000.00 in cash. At the time I was making about $5,200.00 a year as a draftsman; I took the cash and quit my job.

And now, at the age of 73-74 in August, I think, I have been blessed. So much, for me, could have been so different. Eight years ago, at the age of 65, I could have just retired from being a draughtsman. Not a bad life, but not my life.

I bought my parents a 26 inch colour TV; for myself, a Nikon camera system, and at the age of 24 applied to McMaster University as a mature student, wrote the entrance exam and unbelievably I passed the exam. I majored in English Literature, as that was the only subject I was good at in High School and a minor in Art History where I met my life-long friend Bryce Kanbara. I switched to Fine Arts in the second year, made a movie for the McMaster film Board, became the photographer for Mac Girls, which was great, photographing all the sweet young things I wouldn’t have had a chance in Hell with if I didn’t have a camera in my hand. I also joined the Hamilton Camera Club and baffled the rather staid and conservative members with my weird darkroom experiments and documentary work, and as they say…the rest is history.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Special thanks to Jim Chambers for capturing so many moments from Hamilton’s artistic life throughout the years.

Defining the Site: A Collective History Project Inspired by the 20th Anniversary of the Hamilton Artists Inc.: 1975-1995, exhibition catalogue, curator V. Jane Gordon.

Hamilton Arts & Letters: 1/60th of a Second by James A. Chambers

Hamilton Arts & Letters: James A. Chambers

Hamilton Arts & Letters: Metamorphosis by James A. Chambers

Artmagazine: Hamilton: A Co-op That Matters by Barry Lord

Hamilton Spectator: Re-creating James North