Notes on Ovenden -John Thomson (1837-1921) – Photographer

Notes  taken from the book John Thomson (1837-1921) – Photographer by Richard Ovenden

  • 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 (p.vii)
  • His photography on the streets of London seeking to examine the self of the great city, the soul of the British empire (p. Xii)
  • Wet collodion
  • Born in Edinburgh, working class family, initially apprenticed as an optician, attended the `school of Arts, studying natural philosophy, then maths and chemistry
  • Travelled initially to Singapore to work with brother acted as a photographer, travelling widely, went to Siam took pictures of the royal family, Cambodia (note typical European disregard for native cultures
  • 1866 back to Britain, started writing and showed pictures and lecturing
  • Returned to Far East in 1867, Vietnam then Hong Kong china. Pictures, landscapes, the poor, the monasteries
  • Back home 1872
  • The camera should be a power in this age of instruction for the instruction of age…. Photography is alike a science of light and a light of science… (p. 29)
  • Started producing books and magazine articles, initially all about his `eastern travels, also lots of lectures
  • 1876 started the project on the street life of London, produced as a monthly periodical
  • Next 40 years mainly spent photographing the society elite, including royal family, connections with the Royal Geographic Society allowed for more articles and also portraits of explorers
  • Travel and associate photography linked from very early days, often via the grand tours made by aristocratic sons Thompson however was a lone traveller, a freelancer
  • Romantic appeal of ruins, initially in Ankor Wat, often used a high viewpoint, impressed with technology of original builders,
  • Some images show a sense of loss and melancholy, picturesque
  • Interested in old places and architecture still being used e.g. bridges, monasteries
  • Photos of the street, physical aspects, social
  • Used types to categorise the lower orders! So, did he give realistic documentation? Started similar images in Asia, notable racial stereotyping and insensitivity but common to the era. Gradually more sophisticated and more aware of the economic conditions
  • Often took pictures of older women, and does talk about them as individuals, also boatmen showing a degree of sympathy to their difficulties
  • Took some ethnographic images, reverting again to types in Formosa
  • Peking multiple street images and interest in poor. Trying to show the reality of life on the street
  • Went on to take pictures of street scenes in London. Done in context of lots of Victorian writing about the problems there.
  • Smith well experienced in journalism and connected with the social reform movements (p.79). Lots of parliamentary talk, little effect.
  • Interested in street traders. Did put people outside of the rest of society.
  • Probably partly based on previous work by Mayhew London labour and the London poor illustrated by wood-engraving
  • Comments by S and T “ nor, as our national wealth increases, can we be too frequently reminded of the poverty that never less still exists in our midst” (p. 81) from preface to street Life
  • Other photographers also documented the working class e.g. Newhaven project, many people concentrated on the buildings, ~Annan’s Glasgow.
  • Reproduced by Woodburytype process giving rich tones and sharpness
  • Images inevitably staged, partly because of restrictions of equipment, use of fast lenses with short depth of field. Also crowd control and multiple distractions
  • Very much used types (continued right up to Sander) but the accompanying essays do talk about the specific people in great detail, does not sentimentalise them
  • Westminster review ‘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’ (p88)
  • Long history of formal portraiture from king of Siam onward, helped with access. He was aware of the customs of the country ie straight on with no shadows in China
  • Also took formal photos of street people
  • London portraits helped by royal connection!!!!
  • Landscape images probably influenced by other photographers as well as by contemporary painters – notion of the picturesque. He felt the photographer had to act as an artist not just a recorder. Collected Chinese scroll paintings and probably influenced by this style. Interested in pattern and texture.


Ovenden, R., Puttnam, D. and Gray, M. (1997). John Thomson (1837-1921) photographer. Edinburgh: National Library Of Scotland, The Stationery Office.


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