Big city street life

On the Guardian website today they have some pictures by John Thomson, the Edinburgh-born pioneer of street photography. There’s a topical picture of the day, of bonfire night in 1876 (fireworks are going off in the distance as I write this, unless it’s the kids upstairs stamping about) and a gallery of photos from the famous series he published with Adolphe Smith, Street life in London—a copy of the book has just gone up for sale at auction. (It first came out as a series of monthly magazines.)

A Boatwoman, by John ThomsonBut Street life in London was far from being Thomson’s first major work: for most of the decade from 1862 to 1872, he was living and working across east Asia, initially as an instrument-maker but then as a photographer. Wikipedia has these understated words about his exploits:

Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a Westerner or camera before. His expeditions were also especially challenging because he had to transport his bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals.

A Knife-grinder, by John Thomson

As these pictures of a boatwoman and a knife-grinder show, Thomson had plenty of experience of street photography before he returned to Britain and settled in London. But he’d also picked up some experience that would serve him in his later career as a portrait photographer in Mayfair (he got a royal warrant in 1881). This image, for example, shows Mao Changxi, a senior Chinese minister who appears to have a pretty diffident attitude to the camera:

Mao Changxi, by John ThomsonThese images are from the Wellcome Collection, which has a fine selection of Thomson’s Chinese photos to explore here. There’s a web resource at the National Library of Scotland, too, related to a past exhibition—but the photos there are a bit too small to appreciate. It’s a pity, as they include this beautiful land-and-seascape, which I’ve left small so it doesn’t appear too pixellated.

A Canton Junk, by John ThomsonNow there are fireworks going off on the back green, so I’ll leave it at that.

Click images for source — the higher-res Wellcome Collection images are released under a Creative Commons licence

 

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