These rare historical photographs were taken from 1873 to 1877 and are part of Street Life in London, a book that was one of the first examples of social documentary photography. The authors, photographer John Thomson and journalist Adolphe Smith, aimed to reveal by the innovative use of photography and essays the conditions of a life of poverty in London.
Born in Scotland in 1837, John Thomson was a pioneering documentary photographer, one of a breed for whom arduous travel under extremely difficult conditions did little to dampen enthusiasm. Exploring and photographing China for ten years (1862-72), he published his photographs and texts of his journeys in The Antiquities of Cambodia (1867), Illustration of China and its People (1873-74), and The Straits of Malacca, Indo China and China (1877).
Returning to London, Thomson turned his attention to the city, his Street Life in London (1877), frequently credited as the first instance in which photographs were used as social documentation. He subsequently developed the art of “at home” portraits, was appointed photographer to Queen Victoria and was the photographic adviser to the Royal Geographic Society. He died in 1921.
By the mid-twentieth century, the popular perception of the poor had changed. Previously viewed as morally defective, the poor were now regarded as the object of study and charity. Henry Mayhew’s monumental London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, had been illustrated by woodcuts based on photographs by Richard Beard.
While Street Life in London is hardly as comprehensive a work as Mayhew’s, it has the virtue that its photographic reproductions not only show the subjects as they actually appeared but, by capturing the contemporary streetscape of London, also reveals them in their milieu.
The book is famous for these street photographs, but the accompanying text should not be ignored. Thomson wrote some (signed J. T.), but most of it was written by Adolphe Smith (A. S.), a journalist who became an activist concerned with labor and the unions.
Smith’s short essays were based on interviews with a range of men and women who eked out a precarious and marginal existence working on the streets, including flower-sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-caners, musicians, dustmen, locksmiths, beggars, and petty criminals.
It is impossible not to detect the sympathy that both Smith and Thomson feel for their subjects who, more often than not, are threatened by deprivation and hunger. The costumes and backgrounds depicted in the photographs may seem picturesque to us today, but Thomson’s subjects are caught in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty.
According to The Photobook: A History by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger “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. … is a pioneering work of social documentation in photographs and words … one of the most significant and far-reaching photobooks in the medium’s history”.
(Photo credit: John Thomson / Hulton Archive / Getty Images / Victorian London street life in historic photographs by John Thomson, Adolphe Smith 1994).