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  Photo Opportunity

Photographer Jim Thompson started his business in downtown Knoxville 100 years ago. It's still there—and so are his pictures.

When James E. Thompson moved to Knoxville from Morristown in the late 1800s he wasn't looking to establish a dynasty. He was just hoping to make a living. While working as an apprentice architect at a Knoxville firm, the young photography enthusiast bought himself some basic camera and developing equipment and started taking pictures.

Within a few years, however, he found a lucrative niche. "He was really one of the first photographers in the area to make his living making pictures of things and places instead of people," says Thompson's grandson, Ed Thompson.

And so in 1902, James E. (Jim) Thompson founded his own business, Jim Thompson Company. Initially based in his house on Church Avenue (on a site now occupied by the Civic Coliseum's parking lot), the business grew over time to include stores across the region and even into Kentucky. Now called Thompson Photo Products (after decades as the Snap Shop) and run by fourth-generation descendants of its founder, the business is going strong as it prepares to celebrate its centennial.

As Ed Thompson notes, that is no small achievement for an independent retailer in a field dominated by national chains. Thompson Photo has successfully weathered market incursions by volume discounters like Wolf Camera, partly by diversifying—particularly into used equipment—but mostly through a continuity of ownership and carefully cultivated customer loyalty.

It was a family affair from the get-go, with Jim recruiting his brother Robin to help on and off for the first few decades. In 1927, the Thompsons opened a downtown retail outlet in the old Journal Arcade building, managed by Jim's son Bert. Bert Thompson ran the expanding Thompson enterprise for the next 50 years, until his own sons, Ed and Jim, took over around 1980. For health reasons, Ed Thompson has in recent years pulled back from the business, leaving it in the hands of his own children: his daughter Ann, and his son Ed.

"We're kind of a hotbed of nepotism," Ed the elder says with a chuckle. "Everyone in the family at one time or another worked at the store."

There are now three Thompson Photo stores in Knoxville and one in Oak Ridge. They sell cameras and equipment, new and used, and their periodic tent sales are magnets for professional and amateur shutterbugs across East Tennessee. Ed Thompson says one regular customer, Claude Fox, is in his 90s and has been coming to the store almost daily for decades. The store's longevity sometimes even takes Thompson by surprise.

"Often, a young man will bring in a camera and say it belonged to his grandmother, and I'll have a vision of an old creaky wooden camera with a bellows lens," he says. "And he'll pull it out, and it will be something I sold."

But it's hard to consider the legacy of the stores separately from the legacy of their founder. Because in addition to a thriving business, Jim Thompson left behind a lifetime's worth of photographs documenting his city and region. Although none of his descendants has been as dedicated to the craft, they have preserved his work (much of which is now under the care of the McClung Historical Collection).

"A lot of people think he had a great sense of history," Ed Thompson says of his grandfather. "He did not. He had a great sense of keeping things. He saved most of his work."

And so the photographs he took of Knoxville as it evolved through the industrial and post-World War II eras, as well as the birth and growth of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, cumulatively became the most authoritative visual record of the city in the 20th century. If you have seen pictures of Gay Street, Market Square, black bears in the Smokies or crowds out at Chilhowee Park, there's a good chance they are by Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson died in 1975 at the age of 94. But 100 years after he founded his store, his name is in no danger of being forgotten.

"As the competition shrinks away, our [business] actually grows," Ed Thompson says. "It's going to be the last one standing, I guess."

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

On to the gallery!

June 27, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 26
© 2002 Metro Pulse