The Revolutionising Agenda: John Thomson

Feb 15

The revolutionizing agendas of the authors of Street Life in London were based, in no small part, on their prior experiences.

Photographer John Thomson was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, but for a decade in his 20s and 30s, from 1862 to 1872, he lived in East Asia. He officially resided in the colonial cities of Hong Kong and Singapore but made many journeys far beyond: into Thailand and Vietnam, the jungles of Cambodia, and, on several occasions, far into the interior of China. On all these trips he carried his cumbersome photographic equipment, making pictures of the people and places he encountered. He would later publish these, often alongside his own lively writing, in books to be marketed to Western audiences.

Though he worked in the colonialist paradigm, depicting Asian subjects for a largely European audience, Thomson’s images and his writings often differ from others of the time in their markedly sympathetic, insightful attitude towards the peoples and cultures of Asia. Likewise, although he knew the pictorial standards of the “street type” genre well, during his time in Asia he began to break away from that static format and to convey in his photographs some sense of the movement and life to be found in the streets. When he returned to England he brought with him a similarly sympathetic attitude and a lively, naturalistic compositional strategy, hoping to revitalize the representation of poverty in similar fashion. Instead of the objectifying standards of the street type, he would offer in Street Life in London images like Recruiting Sergeants at Westminster, with its dramatic silhouetting and asymmetrical composition; or the remarkably complex A Convicts’ Home, which conveys clearly the flux and movement of the streets.

[From: Emily Morgan, Foreword to Street Life in London.]




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