Bowman, Walter S. (Pendleton)

Walter S. Bowman (Pendleton)
Bowman & Lee

Walter Bowman was born and raised in Pendleton. He spent his teen years herding livestock on his dad’s ranch. Around 1885 he bought his first camera. He began his professional career as a traveling photographer in 1887. In 1889 Bowman established a small studio in Pendleton, probably it was not much more than a darkroom in his dad’s livery stable on Main street.

Pendleton’s early photography galleries clustered in the block next to the Main St. bridge. Once a building was remodeled as a photo studio it tended to remain one because of the large skylights and sinks needed. However, the individual photographers moved about from one to the other and, meanwhile, traveling photographers set up tent studios on the other side of the bridge. When competition became too keen, Main St. gallery owners themselves would head out on the road with traveling photo tents. At the time Pendleton did not use street numbers, and photographers advertised their galleries’ location by stating what stores they were next door to or above. With these stores changing hands even faster than the photographer’s studios it is confusing at best to follow who was where and what happened. Stepping into this whirlwind of portrait galleries, Bowman worked briefly for photographer T. C. Ward. He then formed a partnership with Frank Lee to buy Ward’s business. “Bowman & Lee” opened on March 1, 1890 in Ward’s building. Constructed around 1881, it was already known as the “old stand” and had changed hands among photographers at least every year for nearly a decade. Bowman remained there for the duration of his career; even today the address remains a portrait studio and has earned the distinction of being the oldest continuous site of a photography gallery in Oregon.
When Bowman opened his studio, all of Pendleton’s other photographers had suffered recent personal disasters. T. C. Ward had cut off half his finger while cutting glass. Other photographers had problems ranging from fevers of 105 to terminal illnesses, and the largest of the galleries burned down. Bowman & Lee was a short lived partnership, but Walter Bowman kept the studio and built the most commercially productive photography career in Eastern Oregon’s history.
As one biographer later noted, “Mr. Bowman is, and always has been, an apostle of hard work and persistence.” Bowman’s interests beyond photography were few; fishing and camping were his recreation. He used these trips to add views to his library of Umatilla county scenes, which he had begun takeing in 1887. He offered photographs in sets, and also began to take many Indian portraits at the nearby reservation. Later he was able to use these for making real photo postcards.
Bowman’s old wood building was lucky to survive the May, 1906 floods that innundated Pendleton. Less than a year later, Bowman began construction of a massive concrete foundation brick building. The foundation was started in March, 1907, and finished nine months later. When he completed the task his new photo studio was the subject of a large magazine article in Camera Craft. He personally built the foundation, then moved his frame building back on the lot. Bowman made every brick in the building himself and erected his new building like a cocoon around the old one, all the while operating his studio. When the new shell was finished up to the second floor, he then demolished the old frame structure inside. The Bowman building is now a landmark in downtown Pendleton and still in daily use as a photo studio.
Bowman’s is best known now for his views of the Pendleton Round-Up. His postcard views were so widely circulated that they helped make stars of the riders. In 1914 Bowman asked a nearby official for the name of the young rider that his lens had just caught. The reply “That’s Canutt from Yakima” came, and before the dust had settled Bowman wrote the caption that made Enos Canutt forever known to the world as Yakima Canutt. Probably Bowman’s best single image is of Bonnie Carroll upside down and in mid-air, having just parted company with bucking horse Silver. Over ten years after Bowman took this dramatic photo, the same mishap killed her at the 1929 Round-Up. Bowman took so many outstanding views of the Round-Up that when the official history of the event was published in 1985, Bowman scored more illustrations in the early year sections than any other photographer, and depending on how you count them, perhaps more than all of the others put together.
Bowman’s only serious rival was photographer C. S. Wheeler, with whom he warred for over two decades until Bowman eventually bought him out. Bowman continued as a photographer through the middle 1930’s, when he retired. An icy curve on a frozen highway ten miles east of Pendleton was the last thing that he saw, on Sunday, November 27th, 1938.

Historic photos and images