Thomson with soliders John Thomson

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John Thomson (1837-1921) was born and brought up in Edinburgh. In 1862 he left Scotland to join his elder brother in Singapore.

While in Singapore he began to take serious photographs. Travelling to what is now Thailand, he photographed the Siamese royal family. He also visited Cambodia – where he became the first person to photograph the famous site of Angkor – and Vietnam. Thomson returned to Britain in 1866, publishing the results of photographic works and exhibiting his photographs around the country.

An authority on China

In 1867 he returned to the Far East. He travelled around mainland China, taking a large series of photographs with the intention of returning to Britain and publishing them in book form (see 'China' Thomson page).

Five years later Thomson settled in London, where he published his photographs on China and established his reputation as a leading authority on the country. His engagement with the world of publishing marked him out as an innovator in combining photography with the book.

Pioneer of photojournalism

In London he also joined forces with the journalist Adolphe Smith on an important monthly publication entitled Street Life in London (1876), which pioneered the genre of photojournalism.

He was interested in particular in the people who spent most of their lives on the streets, and who usually belonged to the 'lower' social classes – vendors, beggars, petty criminals, etc. He had a genuine concern for the welfare and the living conditions of the people he encountered in his travels and was keen to capture them on camera.

Awards for his work

John Thomson was as accomplished in portraiture as he was in architectural and landscape work. Throughout the 1880s he built up his portrait studio business and became an instructor in photography for the Royal Geographical Society. He received a number of awards for his photographic work during his lifetime.

A collection of almost 700 of Thomson's original glass negatives, and prints made from the negatives, is held by the library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London.

Exhibition in 1996

In 1996, the National Library of Scotland mounted an exhibition on Thomson and his photographic journeys, entitled Captured Shadows. The exhibition, and the publication which accompanied it, together made a major contribution to our knowledge of one of Scotland's most important photographers.