In 1932, 16-year-old W.D. ‘Wally’ West walked down a Vancouver back alley and came upon a row of photographic frames being exposed to daylight by a professional photographer. This was his first contact with the profession of photography, the profession he would excel in and pursue for the rest of his life.
In his autobiography, Wally explains that as a young man he tried selling vacuum cleaners and washing machines but had very little success. He wanted to be a photographer and at age 19 he boldly approached a professional who was shooting several hundred music students on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre and asked to be his assistant. The photographer said yes—and so began Wally’s education in the field.
Development of a photographer
The professional photographer, Mr. Sunday, and young Wally West developed a routine that went something like this; go where ever there was something happening, photograph the event, rush back to the rooming house bathroom, transform bathroom to darkroom, develop the prints, rush back to the event and make sales.
After capturing on film a banquet, a graduating class of nurses and a bowling tournament, Wally was set loose on his own to capture events and make sales. Using an 8 × 20 camera and a 20 inch focal-length lens, he “had to use the tilts and swings of [the] view camera to get depth of field.” Wally learned through experience, hunting down events in the newspapers and guessing how many ounces of flash powder to use.
In the beginning years as an independent photographer, Wally developed prints in the lower berths of ferries and in abandoned sheds outside dance halls. He even learned to use the headlights of his car to develop prints. His hard work and talent was noticed and in the late 1930s he was taken in by a professional photographer in Victoria.
It was in Victoria that West was asked to photograph the King and Queen of England during their royal visit in 1939. Wally made his own reflector and wrapped cellophane over the flash bulbs and secured it with elastic bands. “In case”, Wally explains, “the bulbs exploded the King and Queen would not get hurt”. Wally used an 8 × 10 camera to photograph the royalty and describes the event,
“...the guests arrived and were seated. The royal party, The King and Queen followed by Lt. Governor Eric Hamber were seated. Now was the time to take the photograph, open the bulb shutter, press the connection to my bank of lights and then—boom—the bulbs with the cellophane exploded. This relieved the tension and the guests all started talking. The Queen expressed that this started everything off with a bang! Our location was near an alcove where the radio announcer was giving a report on the arrival of the Royal party. The explosion of the bulbs had been heard over the radio and President Roosevelt thought that the royal couple had been hurt. He telephoned to Victoria to inquire about the bang and the condition of the Royal party.”
Wally West moved to Prince George in the fall of 1946, setting up a photographic studio in a dilapidated building downtown. Community members helped upgrade the nearly condemned building and his family moved in. W.D. West Studios opened just in time for Christmas portraits.
Wally had a knack for noticing a happening and capturing it with his camera. One of the first such events he shot in Prince George was a protest organized by South Fort George teacher Fanny Kenny. Her students were upset that the Prince George merchants raised the price of Oh Henry bars from five cents to eight cents. They rallied in the streets in a spontaneous protest and West photographed the spirited children marching in front of merchants’ doorsteps. The stores listened and, for that year, held the price to five cents.
After four moves W.D. West Studios established itself on Third Avenue. As a community photographer West was often called out to photograph events in dimly lit community halls. Always up for the challenge, Wally would sequester himself in a nearby house, using the bathtub for the development and wash. He also built his own exposure box, with light bulbs in the bottom layers of glass where he could filter light with layers of tissue paper to the exposure box on top. Despite the dark halls Wally managed to get everyone’s face perfectly lit and the dim hall seemingly sunny.
Unusual circumstances gave rise to photographic discoveries. Prince George’s cold winter weather presented challenges for taking perfect pictures until Wally learned to first warm up negatives with his hands. Residents coming to Wally for restoration of old family photos taken in “the old country” led to the invention of a custom magnifying and rotating touch-up table. An old 78 rpm turntable was used to rotate the photograph, which was held in place by a large metal pickle-jar lid with a hole cut in the top and backed with felt to protect the photo it held in place. An old car windshield-wiper flexed down to hold the lid in place and the precious photo still for the restoration work. Wally logged thousands of hours at this odd-looking table.
With determination and talent Wally photographed both the everyday and the significant events throughout Prince George: the people, parades, corporate development, sporting events, portraits and scenic landscapes. The sports complex, the theatres, the various clubs and even heavy industry were all caught by his lens. Wally photographed the growth of Prince George through the decades, from the late 1940s through the 1980s. He had a real talent for capturing a scene and excelled in the darkroom.
Many hundreds of households in the northwest must have a Wally West photo in their school albums or framed as a wedding portrait on their wall. West’s talents were apparent in his first season of Christmas portraits and it was quite an occasion to have Wally himself show up to take your photo. W.D. West Studios became well known and possessed that certain mystique all businesses desire.
Wally received numerous awards and accolades in Canada and internationally, including the significant recognition of the Professional Photographers of Canada with an Honorary Master of Photographic Arts. Other recipients of this honorary award include Yousuf Karsh and the former Governor General of Canada Roland Michener.
In 1991 Wally retired from his photography business and sold his W.D. West Studios, which still operates to this day. Two years later the City of Prince George purchased his massive collection of negatives and prints and donated them to the city’s Exploration Place. Preserving over 50,000 photographs, the museum provides a visual historical record of the City of Prince George with the Wally West Collection.
Wally West died in January, 2008 at the age of 92.
Staff at the Exploration Place (_www.theexplorationplace.com_) has logged many hours at their computers and scanners to put many of Wally West’s distinct photographs online, so you can see for yourself the talents of this great northern photographer.