Thomson, J. (John), 1837-1921

Alternative names
Birth 1837-06-14
Death 1921-10-07

Biographical notes:

John Thomson was a talented and influential photographer, who had spent ten years travelling in, and taking photographs of, the Far East. On his return to London he joined with Adolphe Smith, a socialist journalist, in a project to photograph the street life of the London poor. The volumes were published in monthly parts as Street Life in London , and were an early example of social and documentary photography.

From the guide to the Street Life in London, 1877, (British Library of Political and Economic Science)

Caledonian sugar mill

A photographer, chemist, and son of a tobacco farmer, John Thomson is considered one of the fathers of social documentary photography. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he traveled to Singapore in 1861 to visit his brother, beginning what would be the first of several Asian excursions. In 1863, camera in tow, Thomson returned to southeast Asia, spending ten months in Penang and Province Wellesley in British colonial Malaysia, before visiting Singapore once again.

Much of Thomson's early photographic work reflects a formal training, with stiffly posed natives depicted in studio-like settings. He soon shifted to a more documentary style, however, focusing on more naturalistic subjects, and particularly subjects of ethnographic and topographical interest. The images he took proved popular fare with British colonists, earning his first photographic laurels: election to the Bengal Photographic Society in 1864. For a brief time he and his brother William ran a studio together, but by 1865, the company was sold and Thomson was off on a six month trip to Bangkok, Thailand. After photographing the King of Siam and his court, his work was cut short by a bout of malaria he contracted in Cambodia in 1866, and after a brief period of recovery in Singapore, he gathered a selection of his work and headed home.

Although he spent barely a year in England, Thomson made the most of his time, teaching photography, publishing his first book, The Antiquities of Cambodia (1867), and earning election to the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Ethnographical Society. By July 1867, however, he had returned to Asia, settling in Hong Kong with his new wife, Isobel Petrie. His second book, Views on the North River (1870), was published in Hong Kong about the same time that his wife grew tired of life in China. Taking their young child, she returned to England, leaving Thomson once again to travel on his own. Inspired by Canton, he made several visits during the next year and in 1871, spent time in Shanghai and Peking. When he made the decision to return to England for good in 1872, he chose to bring with him fewer than twelve hundred negatives, leaving the rest behind in China where they were frequently reprinted.

Back in Britain, Thomson concentrated on publishing a series of popular illustrated books on his journeys, including Foochow and the River Min (1873), Illustrations of China and Its People (1873-1874 in four volumes), The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China (1875), The Land and People of China (1876), Through Cyprus with a Camera (1878), and Through China with a Camera (1898). His Street Life in London (1877) is considered a pioneering work of social photography in England, depicting the lives of the lower classes. In addition to his own publications, Thomson worked on numerous other book projects including translations, photographic illustrations, and collaborations, including an 1875 project with Walter Woodbury, Treasure Spots of the World . In 1919, Thomson placed his glass plate negatives on deposit with Henry Wellcome in London, where they remain as part of the Wellcome Library. Thomson died in 1921.

From the guide to the John Thomson Photograph Collection PH 2., 1863, (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)


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  • Men--Portraits
  • Women--Portraits
  • Photographs
  • Social history
  • Poverty
  • Carte de visite photographs
  • Social problems
  • Visual materials
  • History


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  • Kedah (as recorded)
  • Malaysia (as recorded)
  • George Town (Pinang) (as recorded)
  • London England (as recorded)
  • Singapore (as recorded)