Jim Oliver on a Lifetime of Photography

By David Nilsen

On October 16 & 17, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Greenville Public Library will be hosting a sale of photography prints from Greenville photographer Jim Oliver. Jim worked as a photographer in Greenville for almost half a century, and he has generously offered a number of prints to be sold to benefit the library. These prints will be sold by donation.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Jim and talk about his career as a photographer and his memories of living and working in Greenville.

Jim OliverDavid Nilsen: How did you get started in photography?

Jim Oliver: I guess it was always a hobby, and I kept wanting to get better cameras, but it had to pay for itself.

David:  How long have been doing this professionally?

Jim: I’ve been at it since 1963, working for other people. In 1974 I opened up my own studio, and retired in 2006. That’s forty-three years.

David: What are some of your favorite memories from your years as a photographer?

Jim: I just enjoyed every day. You never knew what was going to walk in the door. That’s what I liked about it – no two days were the same. Also, I loved to do aerials.

David: I’ve seen some of the aerial photos you did. How did that come about? Did you have a friend who was a pilot?

Jim: I’m a pilot. My wife would go with me and she did the camera work.

David: What kind of plane were you in?

Jim: When she was with me it was a Cessna 150.

David: Do you still fly?

Jim: No, I sold my plane. When I would go up by myself in my own plane I would control the plane with my left hand and shoot over my right shoulder. There was just a windshield, since it had an open cockpit. I just happen to have a picture [of that plane], my baby.

(shows me picture)

Jim: That’s called a Woody Pusher.

David: And you moved on from this one to the Cessna with your wife?

Fairgrounds aerial Jim OliverJim: No, actually I went from the Cessna to the Woody Pusher. I built it. I think everybody knows that by now anyway.

David: How has photography changed across the course of your career, and how do you feel about some of those changes?

Jim: Well, the big one was digital. That put me out of business.

David: You didn’t want to switch to digital?

Jim: The phone wasn’t ringing. Everybody was doing their own [photographs]. Besides that I lost my partner.

David: Tell me about your decision to do this sale for the library. What motivated that?

Jim: I was downsizing, and I threw some of the stuff away. Then Ted Grote was getting rid of his stuff, so I thought that was a great idea. I love the library, and I thought maybe they could make a couple of bucks on it.

David: We definitely appreciate it! What role has the library played in your life?

Jim: I was on the library board for a number of years as the president. That goes back to before we had computers. We were talking about computers. I think that was right when DVDs were coming out. I think we charged for DVDs to begin with.

David: You’ve lived here all your life?

Jim: No. I was born here and went to high school here. My wife and I moved to Dayton, and then we moved out to Somerville, New Jersey. I worked there for a few years and then we moved back.

David: When did you move back?

Jim: 1968.

David: Do you have any memories of the library from your childhood, or after you moved back before you were on the board of directors?

Jim: In the basement they had a natural history museum. Did you know that?

David: No, I didn’t know that.

Jim: Ask Ed [Cornell], he’ll tell you about it.

David: Do you have a favorite–or a couple favorite–photographs you’ve taken across your career?

Jim: All of them (laughs). No, there was some that stand out. I did a lot of photos of high school seniors. I got a lot of good shots then.

David: Do you prefer portrait photography, rather than going out and doing architecture, wildlife, stuff like that?

Jim: To tell the truth, I enjoyed doing industrial work. We’d go into a factory and try to make a dirty old building look good.

David: Were those for promotional purposes, or how would those be used?

Broadway 3 (2)Jim: The picture I did for Corning was for the Chamber of Commerce. It was up above the ovens where they added sand. The sand they make that stuff out of was very fine powder. It was so noisy you had to wear ear protection. The top of it–where they put the sand–is red hot.

David: I used to know a gentleman who worked at Corning. He said if anyone fell into those ovens there’d be nothing left of them by the time you could get to them.

Jim: They’d be gone in seconds.

David: What did those photos end up getting used for?

Jim. Got me. (laughs) Some of them were strictly for Corning.

David: Do you have anything else you want to tell our readers about?

Jim: My wife. She was my right-hand man, my office manager, my partner. She died in 2006. I miss her very much.

David: Thanks for being willing to talk with me today, Jim.

Jim Oliver has been an important part of our community for decades, and this sale is a kind and generous gift to the library he so loves. Don’t miss the opportunity to purchase one of these beautiful prints. Come to the sale on October 16 &17 to buy a photograph from this very talented  local artist.

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