John Thomson (1837 – 1921) was born in Edinburgh from a working-class family and ended up one of Queen Victoria’s photographers. During his remarkable life he worked as an optical glass technician , ran a photography shop in Singapore, travelled widely in the Far East, took pictures of both notable figures such as the King of Siam and Chinese mandarins and street workers, together with images of the scenery and buildings – all while carrying the cumbersome equipment need for the wet collodion process and both making and fixing the glass plates in temporary accommodation. On his return to Britain he resided in London, initially lecturing, writing articles and producing books about his travels then taking images of the London street people which were published in a series of magazines accompanied by articles by Adolphe Smith, while at the same time taking formal portraits of the great and good of London, including Queen Victoria and her family.
Thomson’s street images are some of the earliest examples of social documentary photography. He was preceded in Scotland by Hill and Adamson with their images of Newhaven fisherfolk, these very picturesque images are limited to a very small subsection of the population and also by both Thomas Annan, with his pictures of Glasgow slums, and Archibald Burns’s images of the Edinburgh tenements. However, both Annan and Burns concentrated on the buildings and the people are only shown fleetingly, if at all. Thomson’s images, accompanied as they were by extensive essays by Smith, tell much more about the background and lives of the people he photographed. Richard Ovenden, in his extensive work on Thomson says ‘His photography on the streets of London (is) seeking to examine the self of the great city, the soul of the British empire. John Thomson’s journeys were dominated by the quest for light…….and he found light in both the outer reaches of Asia…… and the underbelly of Victorian London’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p.xii).
In the book Street Life in London Thomas and Smith say in the preface ‘We are aware we are not the first on the field…..we have sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject…….to enable us to present true types of London poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance’ (Thomson and Smith, 1877). In an article by the Westminster review, quoted in Ovenden, the unknown author says ‘ it is to be remarked as worthy of all praise that these pictures of London life are free from the patronising characteristic spirit so repulsively pervading even popular and useful writers’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p88). Leach says ‘All of the photographs in Street Life in London display John Thomson’s characteristic visual acuity. He was by this time highly versed in his craft, having for many years lived the life of the consummate photographer-explorer….This odyssey seems to have brought fresh insight into the perception and understanding of his homeland, motivating him to use his camera to show the viewing public not that which they could never see, but that which they chose not to see.’ (Leach, 2016).
The most famous image from Street Life is The Crawlers , a very striking image showing an apparently elderly and destitute female holding an infant in a classic Madonna and Child pose, although, in this case, we learn from the accompanying essay that the two are not related, but that she is looking after the child for another previous denizen of the streets who has a managed to obtain some work.
However, there are several other fascinating images. One of those images, and the one that holds my attention, is that of “Tickets” the Card -Dealer. It shows an middle aged and somewhat scruffy gentleman, holding a paintbrush and working on painting a sign for a fruit seller. Tickets is not looking straight at you, as was the convention in much portraiture at that time, rather he is looking downwards at his work. His expression is melancholy, and he looks exhausted. His hair is untidy, and in spite of the image being taken indoors he is wearing a heavy coat. The only area of brightness and gaiety in the picture is a flowering plant in a bucket. Although this image was taken almost 150 years ago it could be a picture of any person down and depressed today. The gentle author in his Spitalfields Life series comments ‘When I look at these vital pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time’ (gentle author, 2011) – this perfectly describes the look on the face of Tickets. Tickets life, as discussed at length in the accompanying article, is not one of a bad man, or a lazy one , simply one who has had recurring episodes of bad luck which has led him to travel around the world from his native Paris, via America and back to Britain, intending to travel on to France, but arriving here just in time to discover that the political climate in Frances made it unwise to return there. He is left in a life he does not want, in a place that is not his own, having to cope with the despair that causes. The photograph perfectly shows this while being gentle and understanding rather than patronising or sentimentalising the situation.
The images in Street Life were printed using the Woodburytype process. This photomechanical printing process was renowned for its lasting nature as well as the sharp, saturated images in a reddish-brown colour. The sharpness is enhanced by the slight relief between areas caused by the process. For a detailed description of the process see:
This process, and the details it allows for , emphasise the skill of Thomson, taking pictures of people using a slow and heavy camera, while out in the street and needing to not only direct the people he was photographing, but also managing the inevitable crowd control caused by the curiosity produced by using a relatively new process in a poor area as at that time most photography was still either studio based or a hobby of the wealthy.
“Tickets” – the Card-Dealer is a beautiful image, taken by a remarkable and skilled photographer who, as well as taking images of landscapes, buildings and the rich and famous, used his skills to highlight areas of social injustice. He was one of the first to do so. In Overton’s words ‘The quality which strikes the viewer most is his ability to get under the skin, so to speak, of whoever, or whatever, he was photographing’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p.vii) and he used this to try to help people. We would do well to emulate both his skills and his ethos.
Anon (1877). Politics, Sociology, Voyages and Travels. The Westminster Review, 52.
gentle author (2011). John Thomson’s Street Life in London | Spitalfields Life. [online] Spitalfieldslife.com. Available at: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/03/28/john-thomsons-street-life-in-london/ [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].
Leach, G. (2016). The Crawlers: The Genesis of Social Documentary Photography. [online] Photomonitor.co.uk. Available at: https://www.photomonitor.co.uk/crawlers-new/ [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].
Ovenden, R., Puttnam, D. and Gray, M. (1997). John Thomson (1837-1921) photographer. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, The Stationery Office.
Stulik, D. and Kaplan, A. (2013). WOODBURYTYPE. [online] Available at: https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/atlas_woodburytype.pdf.
Thomson, J. and Smith, A. (1877). Street life in London. London: Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington.