James Ring was born at Camberwell, Surrey, England, on 6 April 1856, the youngest son of Harriet Elph and her husband, Stephen Ring, a journeyman carpenter. His photographic career began early. After an education which included some art training, Ring started work not with one of the many London studios, but in America with the firm of Allen and Rowell, a prominent and technically adventurous Boston portrait studio, which during the 1870s specialised in the permanent, beautiful, but ultimately unprofitable carbon print.
Ring sailed for New Zealand on the Pleione on 1 April 1879, arriving on 16 July at Wellington, where he set up a studio. He was not to stay long, his constitution proving incompatible with Wellington's climate. A laconic note on the final page of his entertaining shipboard diary states that he arrived in Greymouth on 2 November that year, attended church on the 3rd and took Sunday school the same evening. He was to be associated with St John's Presbyterian Church in Greymouth for over 50 years.
In Greymouth he re-established himself as a photographer. Although his fortunes would rest on portrait commissions, Ring was alert to the many opportunities that the West Coast afforded the enterprising photographer. In the new colony, photography created and satisfied a demand for images of the unfamiliar and spectacular, and for evidence of colonial industry and success. Ring accordingly built up an extensive catalogue of outdoor photographs. The spectacular West Coast scenery, the gold industry and the frontier settlements were all captured by his wide-ranging camera. From his studio on Mawhera Quay he was able to record the frequent shipwrecks and floods that were to mark Greymouth's history. In January 1906 he accompanied Richard Seddon on the premier's last tour of the West Coast.
Ring's business acumen equalled his output. He advertised extensively, claiming to have '1,000 photographs alone of West Coast scenes', and offering, in 1890, to send 'A series of 52 views, post free, to all parts of the World, for £2 12s.' His images were marketed as individual prints or bound into ready-made albums, and in both formats are found in collections throughout New Zealand and elsewhere. At the height of his success he employed eight assistants and maintained portrait studios in Greymouth, Hokitika and Reefton.
Ring's business continued to flourish after the turn of the century. After a studio fire, in which a number of his negatives were lost, he amalgamated in 1924 with L. A. Inkster, the business continuing as Ring and Inkster until his retirement in 1929.
Ring had married Kate Maria Vinsen, a milliner, at Greymouth on 17 April 1882. They had six children, one of whom, Claude, followed his father into photography. James Ring died at Greymouth on 19 July 1939, survived by his wife and four children.
In an era marked by intense and often unscrupulous competition among photographers, Ring's commercial success was itself enough to cement his reputation. His achievement goes further. The body of work he compiled over 50 years was instrumental in defining the distinctive character of the West Coast. Ring's images still convey the beauty and power of the land that awaited the settlers, and the vigour of the communities that arose there.