Icons of Photography – Iconic Photographer John Thomson (1837-1921)
July 4, 2014
Above: John Thomson with two Manchu soldiers ©Wellcome
John Thomson was an intrepid and determined photographer, whose groundbreaking work documented social conditions both in Britain and the Far East. At different times, he set up commercial portrait studios in London, Singapore and Hong Kong, but his real interest was photographing ordinary people in their daily lives.
Thomson’s achievements are all the greater because he worked at a time when photographic equipment was heavy, bulky and awkward, and the results were unpredictable. Despite these limitations, he produced a significant body of high-quality work that now has great historical interest.
He initially studied chemistry (an essential skill for any photographer in the period) in his native Edinburgh, before setting sail for Singapore at the age of 25. There he set up a business making marine chronometers and optical instruments with his brother, William. He also opened a photographic studio specialising in portraits of merchants.
His fascination for the culture of the region led him to travel widely through Malaya and Sumatra, where he photographed native people. He also travelled to India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then Siam (now Thailand) and Cambodia, where he shot portraits of those countries’ kings. He extensively documented the ancient Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.
Thomson returned to Britain in 1866, where he published his photographs and gave lectures on his work, before returning to the Far East the following year. He set up a studio in Hong Kong, from where he made frequent trips to China during the next four years to photograph its people and culture in the final decades of imperial rule. His travels in the region included a 3,000-mile journey along the Yangtze River.
Photographing in remote regions at the time was fraught with difficulty. Thomson used the most advanced method available at the time, the wet-plate collodion process, but the large wooden cameras and tripods were cumbersome and the processing chemicals were often hard to find.
The fragile glass plates had to be coated with light-sensitive chemicals and exposed while still wet, then immediately developed and fixed. Thomson would have used a portable darkroom, which included a light-tight sheet of material and bottles of hazardous chemicals.
After spending almost ten years travelling, Thomson returned to Britain in 1872 and settled in London. He published more books detailing his travels and wrote technical articles for periodicals. In 1876, he began the project for which he is best known: Street Life in London. This was a monthly magazine that Thomson produced in partnership with the journalist Adolphe Smith.
Above: China – a Manchu bride, 1871 © Wellcome
Its purpose was to highlight the plight of London’s poor, who were either begging on the streets or forced to work hard for long hours and little pay. Although Britain was wealthy and economically prosperous, there was growing concern among social reformers that little was being done to help those in poverty.
Thomson believed that photography could be a valuable tool in showing the ‘struggle for life’ on London’s streets with ‘unquestionable accuracy’. In this work, he aimed ‘to bring before the public some account of the present condition of the London street folk, and to supply a series of faithful pictures of the people themselves’.
By this time, Thomson was using the dry-plate process introduced in the early 1870s, which gave clear, detailed images and shorter exposures than previous processes. The pictures were posed, but accurately recorded people such as chimney-sweeps, public ‘disinfectors’, shoe-shiners, flower-sellers and cab-drivers in their everyday lives.
Each picture was accompanied by a detailed description of the subject and their circumstances. The emphasis was on giving a truthful and accurate picture without exaggerating or sensationalising the situation. In this way, Thomson gave the subjects dignity and humanity. The magazine folded in 1877, but the pictures and descriptions were published in book form the following year.
Thomson was one of the first photographers to use the camera as a tool for social reform. His book was published 12 years before Jacob Riis’s influential book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York.
With this work completed, Thomson, now in his early 40s, made his final photographic trip abroad, to Cyprus. Afterwards, he set up a successful portrait studio in London’s Buckingham Palace Road, which later transferred to Mayfair. In 1881, he was appointed royal photographer by Queen Victoria, and one portrait of the Queen in the royal collection is attributed to Thomson.
In later years he and worked for the Royal Geographical Society as a lecturer and tutor to explorers wanting to document their travels.
He retired from his portrait studio in 1910 and returned to live in Edinburgh. Shortly before his death in 1921, he gave almost 700 glass negatives to the collector Henry Wellcome that he had made in China 50 years earlier. Like his photographs of the London poor, these images not only give us an insight into a lost world, but also show Thomson’s photographic skill and his curiosity and compassion for people from all walks of life.
- 1837 Born in Edinburgh on 14 June. He is the eighth of nine children and his father is a tobacco spinner
- c1850s Apprenticed to an optical and scientific instrument maker; studies chemistry and mathematics
- 1861 Becomes a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts
- 1862 Travels to Singapore, where his brother William lives, and sets up a photographic studio
- 1862-66 Travels in the Far East, visiting Malaya, Sumatra, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Bangkok and Cambodia
- 1866 Comes back to Britain and publishes his first book, Antiquities of Cambodia
- 1867 Returns to the Far East, staying in Singapore and settling in Hong Kong. Spends four years photographing the people and culture of China
- 1872 Returns to the UK and lives in Brixton, London.
- 1876-7 Works with journalist Adolphe Smith on monthly magazine Street Life in London
- 1879 Elected a member of the Photographic Society, later the RPS. Opens a studio in London
- 1881 Queen Victoria appoints him photographer to the royal family
- 1910 Retires from his commercial studio and lives in Edinburgh
- 1921 Dies from a heart attack at the age of 84
Books: Victorian London Street Life (Dover Publications, 1994) includes many of Thomson’s best London street portraits. His finest China photographs are published in China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (River Books, 2010).
Websites: Further information on Thomson’s life is available on digital.nls.uk/thomson. A range of Thomson images can be seen on www.gettyimages.co.uk (search for ‘John Thomson photographer’) and www.wellcomecollection.org