Hawaii's photographic memories
POSTED: Wednesday, October 21, 2009
From the intimate mealtime gatherings of Hawaii's last royal family to the ancient swamplands of Waikiki, the Williams family has captured priceless moments of Hawaiian history.
Williams Photography, the 126-year-old business started by J.J. Williams, whose vintage photos have forever captured old Hawaii—including its last king and queen and dignitaries who built the foundation of what was to come—has survived generational changes from the use of glass-plate to soft pliable black-and-white negatives to color and digital photography.
Matt Williams' great-grandfather would have been proud of the longevity of the photography business he started in 1883—today a thriving family-run operation that has managed to evolve with the fast-changing age of technology.
"Each generation had their struggles," said Matt, the great-grandson of J.J. Williams, who took over the family business in the late 1980s. "It's a story in the life of Hawaii told by one family."
Indeed, four generations of Williamses have documented the building of Hawaii from the last Hawaiian monarchy to statehood and beyond, with thousands of pictures in state and family archives detailing the massive changes throughout island history.
Founder: J.J. Williams
Services: Commercial photography, including aerials, construction, legal documentation, litigation, architectural, insurance, black-and-white archival, weddings and special occasions
Contact: Matt Williams, owner
Queen Liliuokalani, King Kalakaua, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bernice Pauahi Bishop and Duke Kahanamoku are just a few of the prominent faces frozen in time by J.J. Williams, a drinking buddy of Kalakaua.
"Great-grandmother didn't like the king because great-grandfather would be out drinking till the wee hours," Matt said.
But in his time, J.J. Williams was a prudent businessman and chemist—mixing his own chemicals to put on glass plates to make photographs. It was tedious work to create light-sensitive paint emulsion that was placed on five pieces of glass plate, each exposed at different apertures outside his downtown office to see which turned out the best. In 1888 he launched Paradise of the Pacific, now known as Honolulu Magazine.
Matt's grandfather James A. Williams focused on scenic photos, including the Big Island's volcanoes, at a time when cameras weighed a ton and had to be hauled by mule. He became one of the first news photographers for the Honolulu Advertiser.
Matt's father, Alex, was Oahu's lead industrial commercial photographer, documenting the building of Oahu throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Matt, a former waiter, received his first Kodak box camera at age 8 and eventually learned the skills of transforming film into a photograph in the darkroom—a process that got him "hooked on photography."
His father taught him the importance of relationships, especially in a small community like Hawaii, and introduced him to his friends and business colleagues, whose children he would eventually work with on future jobs.
"This family connection has kept it going," said Matt's mother, Lorraine "Brownee" Williams, 83. "Each one's love for their father—that's really getting down to the root of things."
Despite the challenges of the digital age bringing more competition and a new wave of photography to the marketplace, Matt has been able to embrace new technology and outmatch competition through a niche built on years of relationships and reputation.
Above all, he credits his faith in Jesus to the secret of his family's success. "Everything that I have is because of him," Matt said.