Category Archives: Exercise 1.1 – Historic portrait

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.


John Thomson – Street Life in London

Tickets - the Card Dealer
“Tickets” the Card Dealer John Thomson

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] Available at: [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].

Leach, G. (2016). The Crawlers: The Genesis of Social Documentary Photography. [online] Available at: [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:

Thomson, J. and Smith, A. (1877). Street life in London. London: Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington.



Historic Portrait – Initial Thoughts

The brief is to choose a portrait by a historical photographer and discuss it at some length, thinking about the context and the actual image. This opens a very wide range of options. What is historical? How far do you go back? For someone of my somewhat venerable age historical means over a hundred years ago, or a least fifty! For a younger person it might mean more than twenty years.  However, the implication of the information provided is that one should be considering one of the earlier photographers.

History is a slippery concept. It is frequently said that it is written by the victors. It is certainly mainly written by, and about, men – although there has been a present press to redress that particular bias. It is also very driven by the concept of ‘class’. In photography, like painting, most early portraits were taken both by and of the relatively wealthy. They are the ones who could afford the equipment and afford to pay for a picture. A very different situation from the present where, at least in the majority of the world, most people have access to a camera of some sort, and where they do not, in areas considered deprived (if interesting enough) there are a plethora of people taking images.

I spent some time considering which photographer to choose. Amongst others I looked at:

  1. I was recently on holiday in Wales and came across a local museum in Merthyr Tydfil, the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, which had a collection of photographs on show by Robert Thompson Crawshay (1817-1879) who took images of the local area, his family and friends, and went as far as building a photographic studio in his house.

    Self portrait – Robert Thomson Crayshaw
  2. Another option I considered at length was the Edinburgh duo of Hill (1802 – 1870) and Adamson (1821-1848). They worked in Scotland at the very early stages of development of photography and took multiple images of the great and famous of Edinburgh and also a series of social documentary images of the fisher golf of Newhaven. I saw a recent exhibition of their images discussed here:

NewHaven Fisherwoman – Hill and Adamson

  1. Roger Fenton (1819-1869) is also discussed in the above link. As well as his famous series of images of the Crimea he also took portraits of the London gentry and the royal family.

    PGP 237.13
    Sir George de Lacey Evans, – Roger Fenton
  2. John Thomson (1837 – !921) was another Scottish photographer who was among the early pioneers of photojournalism. He spent a considerable time travelling in the East and took a series of stunning images of Chinese people of all classes (although mainly the mandarins). When looking at his work, having previously only been aware of the China images I discovered a series of images he took later in life of the street life in Victorian London. These were accompanied by essays by himself and a collaborator- Adolfe Smith.

    Cantonese schoolboy – john Thomson

I eventually chose the last of these options as it was work that I had not looked at before in detail and I remember the amazing clarity of the Chinese images from an exhibition I saw in Glasgow many years ago. They were one of the reasons I became interested in the history of photography.

The next decision was what image? There are multiple possibilities. There are several beautiful images from the Chinese body of work including a picture of a young Cantonese schoolboy, whose expression could be that of a young child attending school today (although the heavy books would probably be replaced by a tablet). I eventually decided to look at one of the images from the Victorian street life series. Again, there was a choice to be made. What defines a portrait?  Tagg’s comment, quoted in the course manual ‘The portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity’ (Tagg, 1988) is very pertinent here. One option was ‘The Crawlers’, otherwise known as ‘The Tailors Widow’, another was ‘“Tickets” The Card Dealer’. The first image is very well known, the latter less so.


Tagg, J. (1988). The burden of representation. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.