19th Century London Street Photography by John Thomson


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.

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  • rz67

    Wow. Just wow.

  • TSY87

    I can’t quite put into words why these types of photos fascinate me so much. From their expressions, clothing, what they are doing… it just fills me with wonder… very cool!!

  • David

    First Vivian Maier, now this gentleman shows “Street Photography” of a high order. I can look at images like this for a long time and try to imagine what these peoples’ lives were like. Done properly photography is such a rich medium.

  • Carl Meyer

    Their lives were not much different from the lives of people doing the same jobs today in many places around the globe.

  • Scott M

    Some of these scenes are so alien.

  • CFR

    I give him credit for Street Portraiture but under the definition of SP, he was not one. Interacting, posing the subjects, he was doing documentary work. So no, he was NOT a “Street Photographer.”
    With that said, he was an amazing artist and great contributor to photography.

  • jkantor267

    The pictures are just the starting point. Read the explanation behind them in the book.

  • Zos Xavius

    Street photography in the form that you are thinking of would have been virtually impossible. Posing the subjects and getting them to hold still for long periods of time were necessary and unavoidable due to the long exposure times necessary. Remember, film hadn’t even been invented yet. If you ask me these are very much street. How much more street can they be? People don’t interact with their subjects in street photography? Really? According to what authority?

  • Sid Ceaser

    These are crazy awesomesauce. So beautiful.

  • Ray Jordan

    The film was so much slower so he did a credible job even though he was forced to pose them. Had he had the faster film of this era, his photgraphy would have been unposed.

  • John Mason

    The story of the Crawler with the small boy from the complete pdf link (the third picture from the bottom) is quite touching and tragic.

  • Corporate Photographer

    Wonderful victorian images. Love the guys outside the pub smoking- nothing changes.

  • Rachel Danos

    Great call. What a dumb thing to suggest in any way this isn’t street photography.