Captured Shadows
The Photographic Journeys of John Thomson (1837 - 1921)


The remarkable work of one of the most important photographers of the l9th century is the subject of a new exhibition from the National Library of Scotland which opens in Museet for Fotokunst, Odense, Denmark.

What makes John Thomson so remarkable is not only the technical and aesthetic quality of his work but his mastery of a wide range of genres. He was one of the first photo-journalists, capturing the poor and the down-and-outs of London's street life. At the other extreme, his expertise in portraiture made him a much sought-after photographer of fashionable society. But he was just as skilled in landscapes and architectural photography, and it was largely his images of China and South-East Asia which introduced the East to the armchair travellers of Victorian Britain. In addition, it was his enthusiasm for disseminating his images to a mass audience through publication that led to rapid advances in the development of the photographically-illustrated book.

Born in Scotland on 14 June 1837, Thomson trained as a scientific instrument-maker before leaving his native Edinburgh in 1862 to embark on a ten-year series of adventures which would take him all over the Far East, make his reputation as a photographer, and earn him the nickname 'China Thomson'.

After establishing himself in Singapore, where he made instruments and set up a portrait studio, he undertook in 1865 his first major photographic journey - to Siam (modern Thailand) and Cambodia. He took exquisite photographs of the King of Siam and his royal court (later made famous by the film The King and I) and braved the hardships of the jungle in a epic journey to the recently-discovered ruined city of Angkor, becoming the first person to photograph the stupendous ruins which are now a World Heritage Site.

In 1867 he moved his base to Hong Kong, and over the next five years, often travelling only with his dog, Spot, as a companion, he set about exploring China in all its diversity. His travels took him from the trading ports of Hong Kong and Canton to the heart of the country. 5000km up the river Yangzi, as well as to the capital Peking (Beijing). His subject-matter ranged equally wide, from beggars and street people to mandarins and princes; from imperial palaces to remote monasteries; and from rural villages to the grandeur of the rivers and mountains.
Returning to Britain in 1872, Thomson settled in London, where he lived and worked for the next 50 years. During this time he published his images in increasingly lavish books, becoming one of the great developers of the photographically-illustrated book. He also became a pioneer of the new genre of photo-journalism, working with radical journalist, Adolphe Smith, on Street Life in London (1876-77), a landmark publication which documented the lives of the city's street people in words and pictures. More conventionally, he made a comfortable living as a photographer of high society and royalty, gaining the Royal Warrant for his work.