There’s some debate over who the “father” of street photography was. Although Frenchman Eugene Atget is often granted this title, his work was mainly architectural, putting people second.
But there’s another, lesser-known name that enters the picture (pardon the pun) as early as if not earlier than Atget: a Scotsman by the name of John Thomson.
Thomson, who lived from 1837 to 1921, began photographing the London streets — or, more specifically, the London poor who spent their time on those streets — after returning in 1872 from his travels photographing the Far East.
Unlike the often sneaky and sometimes downright invasive street photography we sometimes see today, the technology of the time meant that Thomson has to get to know his subjects. You couldn’t just snap a photo, you had to ask the subject to sit still while you set up your heavy equipment and took an exposure.
Here is a selection of Thomson work:
Together with radical journalist Adolphe Smith, Thomson put together two street photography books over the course of his career.
Smith would interview the subjects Thomson photographed, and together they released a monthly magazine called Street Life in London between 1876 and 1877 (later compiled into a book by the same name) and a book called Street Incidents in 1881 — that’s four years before George Eastman developed film, in case you need a reference point.
Both books are considered well-respected social commentary on the lives of the London poor, and are now extremely rare finds. A first edition of Street Incidents is currently on sale at Philadelphia-based Bauman Rare Books for $17,500.
To see more of Thomson’s work setting the stage for later street and documentary photographers, or if you’d like to browse through a complete PDF version of Street Life in London, had over to the London School of Economics Digital Library by clicking here.