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[Street Life in London]
Museum of London
© Museum of London - (IN648)
Thomson travelled and photographed in the Far East for several years before opening a studio in London in 1875. Two years later he collaborated with the left-wing journalist, Adolphe Smith, on a study of some of the poorer inhabitants of the capital, which was published as a part-work in 1877-8 under the title, Street Life In London. Of this photograph Smith wrote, 'Huddled together on the workhouse steps in Short's Gardens, those wrecks of humanity, the Crawlers of St. Giles's, may be seen both day and night seeking mutual warmth and mutual consolation in their extreme misery.' The woman in the photograph was minding the child of a friend who had found a job in a coffee shop.
In terms of the history of photography, Street Life in London is highly significant because it was the first published collection of social documentary photographs anywhere in the world. What is less clear, though, is its true value as a serious work of social investigation. Opinion at the time was divided about its merit either as art or as propaganda, and there may well have been some disagreement between Thomson, the artist-photographer, and Smith, the radical socialist writer, about the content of the photographs. Following its issue as a part-work, Street Life in London was sold as a bound volume and then as a shortened version called Street Incidents. It is debatable whether this was due to the work's popularity or to the efforts of the publishers to get rid of unsold stock.
For an analysis of this photograph: Juliet Hacking (ed.), 2012, Photography: The Whole Story, (Prestel), pp. 152-153