Italian Street Musicians Thomson, John  (British, 1837-1921)

Considered a pioneering work for its use of photography as social documentation, and one of the most significant and far-reaching photobooks in the medium’s history, Street Life in London was a breakthrough in photographic reporting and observation.

For a fortunate few, late 1870’s Britain was a time of prosperity and wealth. However, a large section of the British population was struggling in squalor and destitution. Between 1876 and 1877 Scottish photographer John Thomson documented the living conditions of the poor. The photographs were intended to help middle class Victorians to gain some understanding of the depth of misery faced by the lower class. As Thomson himself writes: The unquestionable accuracy of this testimony [photographic] will enable us to present true types of the London poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance.

"In mid-Victorian times photographers did not point their cameras at overt social problems. Perhaps this fact in itself reflected something of the period — social conditions of the working classes were not something to be looked at either with the naked eye or the camera." [1]

Perhaps the most striking feature of Street Life is that the images are reproduced photomechanically by the Woodburytype process from the Thompson’s original dry-plate negatives. The resultant prints give a strikingly sharp, permanent, almost three-dimensional toned representation allowing us to experience them today exactly as they were intended when published.

Street Life in London’ was issued monthly for a year beginning in February 1877. Each issue contained three Woodburytypes with explanatory biographical text to accompany them. The text was written by Thompson and Adolphe Smith. The 12 monthly parts of were reissued in book form in 1878, and also in a shorter version under the title, Street Incidents was issued in 1881 with 21 of the original 36 Woodburytypes.

“Structurally, Street Life is a combination of street portraiture… and interviews with the subjects. Thus it was the direct predecessor of the journalistic picture stories that would appear in illustrated magazines from that period onward” [2]


[1] Buckland G. Reality Recorded : Early Documentary Photography. Greenwich Conn: New York Graphic Society; 1974. p. 77

[2] Parr Martin and Gerry Badger. The Photobook : A History. Phaidon 2004 2014.

Todd, Nicola John Thomson’s “The Crawlers” and the Birth of Documentary Photography

Thomson, J. (1994) Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc

White, S. (1985) John Thomson Life and Photographs. Thames and Hudson

Foster, Sheila J, Manfred Heiting, and Rachel Stuhlman. Imagining Paradise: The Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House, Rochester. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007 p. 161 p 174

Josef Maria Eder: History of Photography: Translated by Edward Epstean: Columbia University Press: New York: 1945

Manon Hübscher: The Vienna Camera Club-Catalyst and Crucible: in: Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888-1918 : Merrell Publishers : 2006 : p.125

The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography: Weston J. Naef: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1978

Frizot, Michel. A New History of Photography. , ‘The Photograph in Print, Multiplication and Stability of the Image’ by Sylvie Aubenas, 1999.

Goldschmidt Lucien Weston J Naef and Grolier Club. 1980. The Truthful Lens : A Survey of the Photographically Illustrated Book 1844-1914. 1st ed. New York: Grolier Club