Photography has changed our world. And this autumn sees the hundredth anniversary of the death of perhaps the greatest photographer: John Thomson, pioneer of social documentary, and founding father of photojournalism. Thomson’s towering achievements in the 1860s include not only producing one of the most important early photographic records of China and the far east, but also creating some of the most famous images of the Victorian poor.
Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1837, the eighth of nine children. After apprenticing to an optical and scientific instrument manufacturer, in 1862, aged 24, he travelled to Singapore, where he opened a photographic studio, taking portraits of British colonists and merchants. But there he became fascinated by the “Other”, and over the next 10 years – travelling in places such as Burma, Cambodia and, especially, China – he produced what is in my estimation the greatest photographic record of indigenous cultures of the east in the 19th century. Exploring mountains and jungles, he was the first to document the stupendous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
In the late 1860s Thomson arrived in China in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion in which at least 20 million people had died from war, famine and disease. His journeys there included a 3,000-mile trek up the Yangzi river carrying a camera, plates and chemicals with him. Thomson was the first ever photographer to access the deep countryside, taking pictures of all levels of society, from beggars to mandarins. Amazingly, this included intimate and affecting portraits of Chinese women both high and low – pictures that reveal an artist of profound insight and humanity.
Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous. Along with local helpers (and his dog, Spot, as a companion), he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a westerner or a camera before.
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At the time it was believed that having one’s photograph taken resulted in the life-threatening loss of vital essence. A photographer, therefore, was frequently looked on as a forerunner of death. There were occasions when Thomson witnessed Chinese people so terrified that they begged him not to approach with his fatal lens. On one occasion, when he was taking a photo of a tower not far from Guangdong in the south-east of the country, Thomson was assaulted on the riverbank by a mob that drove him into the river. Luckily he was hauled out of the water by two women in a boat. But he spent time explaining and reassuring through his interpreters, and his pictures show an uncanny rapport between subject and camera. Some of his Chinese portraits are spellbinding in their intimacy.
In 1872, Thomson returned to England, bringing with him an unsurpassed portrait of late imperial China on the eve of the modern age. He opened a studio in Brixton and continued to innovate and explore, achieving international fame through his writings, books, lectures and teaching. He was among the first to combine photography with the printed word, playing a key role in the evolution of the kind of photojournalism we know worldwide today. He produced a monthly magazine, Street Life, in which he documented the lives of the people of London’s East End – a truly remarkable portrait of the poor in the Victorian age. He also developed the technical processes to reproduce photographs in books: his eight volumes of photographs were bestsellers.
Thomson was so in demand that he opened a studio in Buckingham Palace Road and became a photographer of high society in Mayfair: he received the Royal Warrant in 1881 when Queen Victoria made him official photographer to the royal family. In 1886 he also began instructing explorers at the Royal Geographical Society in the use of photography to document their own travels.
Nearly 700 of Thomson’s glass plates survive (now chiefly in London’s Wellcome Institute) and recent exhibitions of his photographs in cities such as Shanghai have attracted huge and fascinated crowds, intrigued by his unrivalled portrait of late imperial China and its people, rich and poor. One of the outstanding geniuses in the history of photography, Thomson deserves to be known better. Time for the BBC and the National Museum of Scotland to step up?
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine