William James Oliphant, photographer, was born to William and Jane (Van Zile) Oliphant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on September 30, 1845. When he was seven the family moved from Indiana to Austin, Texas, where they arrived on January 10, 1853. The elder Oliphant was a well-known jeweler on Pecan (now Sixth) Street for many years. At the outbreak of the Civil War, when he was fifteen, Oliphant enlisted in Company G, Sixth Texas Infantry, Army of Tennessee. During the war he was shot seven or eight times and captured twice. After returning to Austin he apparently studied photography in the studio of Stone and Waggoner, located on the second floor above the senior Oliphant's jewelry store. He opened his own studio at that location in 1868 but soon closed it temporarily in order to travel to Washington, D.C., to study photography in the studio of Alexander Gardner, a major photographer of the Civil War. Oliphant reopened his photographic studio later in 1868 and ran his studio until he changed careers in 1881. Directly across Pecan Street was the studio of Hamilton Biscoe Hillyer, and around the corner on Congress Avenue was the studio of Harvey R. Marks. These three men were the major photographers in Austin until the 1880s. Oliphant was especially skillful in stereoscopic and landscape photography and won six blue ribbons in photography at the 1876 state fair. His paper prints range from tiny locket sizes up to seventeen by twenty inches. In his first years in business he also made ambrotypes, although none is known to exist today.
He left photography in 1881, probably because of physical handicaps caused by war wounds. He was subsequently employed in many governmental offices, including the state comptroller's office (1881–86), the Internal Revenue Service (1887–90), the Board of Public Works (1891–94), the Water and Light Commission (1895–96), and the tax assessor's office (1905–27). He was a Mason and a member of the Travis Rifles and the Washington Steam Fire Engine Company. His first wife, Lizzie J. (Walker), died in 1873. In 1877 he married Alice Olive Townsend of Austin; they had three sons and a daughter, Jane Elizabeth, who married Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb. Oliphant died at his home on November 11, 1930, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin. Both his wives other family members are also buried there.